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Coronavirus Outbreak Pushes Census Outreach Efforts Online

The traditional face-to-face campaign to convince people to fill out their Census forms has been stopped by the coronavirus, forcing communities to switch their complete count efforts to social media and digital means.

by Kenneth C. Crowe II, Times Union / March 23, 2020
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(TNS) — The traditional face-to-face campaign to convince people to fill out their 2020 Census forms has grounded to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing communities to switch their complete count efforts to social media and digital channels. It's also forced the U.S. Census Bureau extend the national deadline for the count by two weeks.

The pandemic was an unanticipated scenario in 2020 Census planning, U.S. Census officials said Friday from Washington D.C. during a national telephone press conference. They’re retooling field operations, advertising campaigns and setting new deadlines to get the nation’s population counted by Dec. 31 as required by law.

Switching plans is happening locally in Upstate New York, too.

“We put on a full-court press for a complete count. Certainly the coronavirus pandemic has put this off track,” Cohoes, N.Y., Mayor Bill Keeler said.

Keeler made a robocall on March 12 when the first census forms showed up in mailboxes across the country.  But Cohoes had to cancel its census-promotion events and shut the Cohoes Public Library where residents were to have access to computers to fill out their forms. Now it's a push to get the same message out digitally.

The U.S. Census Bureau is dealing with the unsettled environment in which states are ordering shutdowns of business and directing people to stay home, said Albert E. Fontenot Jr., associate director for decennial programs, who is leading the count.

"This is not anything any of us could have anticipated or planned. Of all of our worst nightmares of things that could have gone wrong with the census we did not anticipate this set of actions," Fontenot said.

"We are adjusting operations as needed," Fontenot said. "The plan for the 2020 Census is resilient and adaptive.""

Mark Castiglione, executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said this was the first time that people had the option on filling it out online, by mail or over the phone. But getting them to do so was following traditional methods.

The city of Albany was mobilizing its libraries, churches, schools, barbershops and other organizations to reach out to residents to complete their census forms.  All of those groups are shuttered.

“The City of Albany Census Complete Count Committee is working diligently to transition to a fully digital outreach plan that includes social media contacts, emails, and phone calls from our community’s trusted voices,” said David Galin, who chairs the committee and is Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s chief of staff.

“While we have cancelled many of our upcoming public outreach events due to COVID-19, we will continue to work very hard to ensure every resident of Albany is counted,” Galin said.

Fontenot echoed what Galin and Keeler said.  The Census Bureau is urging local organizations to get online to remind people through social media and email to return their census forms.

As of Saturday, the reports after a week of filings show that 16.7 percent of the nation’s households have completed their census forms, according to the census bureau.  In New York state, 14.3 percent of households have filled out their forms.

Across the Capita Region, Schenectady County has the highest completion rate so far with 18.8 percent, followed by Albany County at 16.8 percent, Rensselaer County 16.2 percent and Saratoga County, 15.3 percent.  Statewide, Niagara County has the highest percentage reporting at 20 percent. Hamilton County, which is the state's least populous county, hasn't cracked 1 percent as just 0.4 percent have filed their census forms.

Among the four region's major cities, Saratoga Springs has seen 19.7 percent of its households file their forms. Schenectady is next at 15 percent while Albany is at 14.5 percent and Troy is 14.2. Among the smaller cities, Watervliet is at 16.6 percent, Rensselaer 15.7 percent, Cohoes 14.1 percent and Mechanicville 14 percent.

In the towns, Colonie is leading Albany County communities with 20.6 percent return rate and Rensselaerville lags all others at 11.1 percent. North Greenbush at 23.3 percent is the top town in Rensselaer County with Berlin at the bottom with just 3.3 percent. Providence at 19.9 percent in Saratoga County leads all other towns and Day is far behind at 2.1 percent. In Schenectady County, Niskayuna is at 23.8 percent while Duanesburg is at 18.3 percent with the county's lowest rat of return.

In response to the coronavirus, the census bureau is pushing back its deadlines from early April to May for starting door-to-door outreach to get a complete county.  Instead of the July 31 deadline for finishing the count, this has been extended to Aug. 14. This is part of a complete overhaul of the schedule for the census.  Fontenot said census officials are meeting daily to monitor the evolving situation.

Students who live off-campus still are supposed to be counted in the communities where they attend school on the April 1 Census Day.  They still are expected to fill out forms saying so even if they’ve returned to their parents’ homes.

“We’ll have to adjust our off-campus outreach strategy significantly because it relied heavily on peer-to-peer, in-person door knocking by student employees in midtown, which was set to begin after spring break,” said Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, a spokesman for the University at Albany.

“We were already planning to do a lot of digital outreach, so we’ll just double-and triple-down on that, including on social media and with direct e-mail outreach to students living off campus,” Carleo-Evangelist said.

Students living in on-campus dorms will be reported by colleges and universities from those addresses when those lists are filed with the census bureau.

The coronavirus delays and operational pauses come after the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question according to the bureau, a move that critics said would discourage undocumented immigrants from participating when the Census is intended to count all people regardless of citizenship status. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to block the administration from adding the question in 2019.

"One of the best ways you can help your community right now and one of the best ways you can support a wide variety of public health (efforts) is by completing your 2020 census online today," said Ali Ahmad, associate director for communications for the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The current situation underscores the need for census data," said Fontenot. "Census results are used to inform planning and funding for hospitals, health clinics and emergency preparedness, even school lunch programs."

The Census Bureau has received 2.8 million applications and hired more than 600,000.  There's been a dramatic up-tick in people applying for jobs with the 2020 Census, perhaps correlated to business closures and layoffs in many states. Timothy P. Olson, associate director for field operations for the U.S. Census Bureau, said 8,000 people are applying for census jobs daily.

All hiring and training of applicants has been frozen until April 1. "We are urging people to consider applying because we may need more temporary employees than originally planned for,” Olson said.

©2020 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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