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On Census Day, Advocates Push The Count While Keeping Their Distance

Although the conornavirus has face-to-face encounters with census workers are on hold, there are still phone and online options for Census 2020, and households in hard-to-count neighborhoods will get paper questionnaires in the mail. [Gayle S. Putrich  / ideatream]
a pile of mail includes several notices from the U.S. Census Bureau and coronavirus guidance from President Donald Trump

This April 1 was an unusual Census Day, with coronavirus precautions freezing in-person events and outreach efforts for the 10-year survey.

The U.S. Census Bureau has suspended field operations until April 15, including visits to “group quarters” like nursing homes, according to Assistant Regional Census Manager Roxanne Wallace.

Although face-to-face encounters with census workers are on hold, respondents can still fill out the survey online and by phone, she said. Households in hard-to-count neighborhoods also will receive paper questionnaires in the mail.

“We’re monitoring, of course, the federal, local and state health authorities, which is why we suspended the operations,” Wallace said. “But we do want everyone to know that the Census is still open.”

Local census advocates are canceling events, too.

Last weekend, officials including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish were supposed to knock on doors around Northeast Ohio to help promote the count. Those plans are now postponed, county regional collaboration director Michele Pomerantz said.

The county is still trying to reach people, despite Ohio’s stay-at-home order. There are plans to give out census literature at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s meal distribution sites. But there’s a balance to strike in that.

“We don’t want to overwhelm anyone that’s doing a food pantry or doing something for families and getting safety, food and resources around the COVID-19,” Pomerantz said.

On Wednesday, Cuyahoga County sent text message census reminders to residents who subscribe to the county’s ReadyNotify system.

Census advocates also took to the internet to spread the message while keeping their distance. Cleveland VOTES, a local voter engagement group, launched a “tweetstorm” to spark online conversations about the count.

There are challenges to a digital approach. Many neighborhoods with traditionally lower census response rates also have less internet access. Cleveland VOTES members don’t want those residents left behind, advocacy and engagement coordinator Devontá Dickey said.

“Because of the very precarious state that we are in, a lot of people in fact could possibly be disenfranchised,” Dickey said. “But we are very much trying our best to be cognizant of making sure that we can still reach out and connect to those individuals who in fact may still be digitally redlined.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.