This year’s census has pulled up all boots on the ground, for now, as the Census Bureau announced Wednesday it had suspended field operations for the rest of the month due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The move puts increased emphasis on households to respond online, over the phone or by mail in the current phase of the census, which is trying to count more than 300 million people across the country over the next few months.
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said more than 11 million households have already responded on their own. The agency will continue to monitor the situation and consider changing its advertising campaign in response to the pandemic.
“With the flexibility and support of the American people, we will achieve a complete and accurate count which helps guide funding decisions for things like hospitals, roads and emergency services,” Dillingham said in a statement.
The latest change will mean delays in on-the-ground outreach work and counting the homeless population. It also may delay counting island territories and rural areas. A Census Bureau spokesman did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions regarding further details, like the work census staff conducts with local organizations and governments.
Over the weekend, the agency said it would change counting for people in group facilities like college students, nursing homes and homeless shelters.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., released a statement in response to the Census Bureau announcement, saying the delay highlighted the need for American residents to respond on their own.
“The Oversight Committee is closely monitoring the suspension of field operations and other developments to ensure that the Census Bureau takes all necessary steps to keep people safe while conducting a full, fair, and accurate census,” she said.
Maloney and other Democrats have urged the administration to make its coronavirus plans public, and potentially extend the count beyond July 31, the planned end date for field operations.
Dillingham and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have said extending the deadline remains a possibility. Existing statute mandates the bureau give the president the state population totals from the census by the end of the year.
The agency said it has hired more than 35,000 temporary staff of a planned more than 350,000, and its original plans call for increased hiring later this month. Dillingham’s statement said the agency still plans to do its door-knocking operation starting in May.
Census officials expect about 60 percent of the households in the country to respond on their own, with the rest counted through follow-up efforts or administrative records.
Members of Congress and advocacy groups have raised concerns the virus may undermine the count, which is used to distribute 435 congressional seats and steer $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually.