As 2020 Census preps for coronavirus, Commerce IG seeks contingency plan update

Households across the country received their first invitation in the mail to participate in the 2020 census on Thursday, but the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the Census Bureau to launch a coronavirus internal task force to “continuously monitor the situation nationwide.”

The pandemic, so far, hasn’t affected current operations. The bureau, for example, continues to carry out fieldwork for non-decennial surveys by phone in areas with an outbreak of COVID-19, the current strain of the coronavirus.

As of noon Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,215 COVID-19 cases in the United States.

“Our preparation and contingency planning centers on two key principles: The health and safety of our staff and the public is of the utmost consideration and importance,” the bureau said in a statement Wednesday. “We must fulfill our constitutional obligation to deliver the 2020 Census counts to the President of the United States on schedule, and we must adhere to our core task of counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place.”

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But bureau officials say they’re prepared to adjust, on a community-by-community basis, plans to send enumerators to follow-up with households that don’t respond to the 2020 census questionnaire on their own.

“If we need to delay or discontinue nonresponse follow-up visits in a particular community, we will adapt our operation to ensure we get a complete and accurate count,” the bureau wrote.

While most non-response follow-up work will happen in mid-May, the bureau planned to begin work in some communities as early as April 9.

The bureau has stressed that internet and phone self-response options new to the 2020 Census have made it easier to get counted without personal contact.

“It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a census taker,” the bureau wrote.

Throughout non-response follow-up, households can continue to submit their 2020 questionnaires online, over the phone, or through the mail.  Online and phone response will remain available through July 31.

Meanwhile, the bureau’s partnership specialists have begun to hold meetings and reach out to local partners over the phone and through teleconferences.

“The Census Bureau will closely follow guidance from public health authorities when conducting this operation, as we do when conducting all field operations,” the bureau wrote.

The Commerce Department’s inspector general, however, said in a memo Thursday that the bureau’s statements on modifying non-response follow-up “provided little explanation for contingency plans.”

“The 2020 Census kickoff coincides with a time of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty, as the country is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus known as COVID-19,” Commerce IG Peggy Gustafson wrote in her memo to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham.

The memo asks for updates by March 20 on what plans the bureau has in place to fully conduct the 2020 Census during a major health crisis, as well as what plans it has to address a scenario where “social distancing” measures become more widespread “and households become reluctant, or refuse altogether, to engage with enumerators.”

Gustafson has also asked Dillingham for details about what training and protective equipment, if any, enumerators will receive to conduct their work.

After accepting more than 2.6 million job applications, the bureau began its selection process earlier this month to hire as many as 500,000 enumerators.

Households that have yet to receive a 2020 census mailing will get one later this week or next week. The bureau expects all household will receive their first 2020 Census mailing by March 20.

Households that have yet to receive a 2020 census mailing will get one later this week or next week. The bureau expects all household will receive their first 2020 Census mailing by March 20.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau, “out of an abundance of caution,” will now only livestream a decennial kickoff event in Atlanta scheduled Monday to announce the release of the first 2020 census response rates.

As the Census Bureau gears up to fight disinformation about the 2020 decennial count, House Democrats have introduced a bill that would make spreading this information a crime.

Violators of the Honest Census Communications Act, introduced Thursday by House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) would face up to $11,000 and up to five years in prison for spreading knowingly false information to prevent others from participating in the census.

“America’s founders included the decennial Census in the Constitution because a representative democracy depends on an accurate count of its people,” Eshoo said in a statement. “The Honest Census Communications Act ensures that any attempt to intentionally spread lies about the once-in-a-decade count is met with severe consequences befitting such an egregious crime.”