Patricia Bird, foreground, and her son, Joel Bird, background attended a United States Census Bureau recruiting session for the residents of the Independence Point Apartment Homes near Lincoln High School, held at Independence Point, December 12, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The new coronavirus is threatening to complicate the nation’s massive, once-a-decade population count, but it’s also giving momentum to the Census Bureau’s 2020 push to encourage people to respond by phone, mail or – for the first time – online.

Don’t want a stranger knocking on your door after spending the day knocking on other people’s doors? Then fill it out online, the government says.

Such “self-responding” as early as possible means “you don’t have to come into contact or meet a census taker,” when they are deployed in May, bureau spokesman Michael Cook said.

Beginning Thursday, about 80% of the population was to get an invitation in the mail instructing them to fill out the census online – the first time people have had the ability to use the internet to respond. The other 20% will get an option to fill it out either online or by regular mail. (Everyone also gets the option of doing it by phone.)

“The good news for the census is they are counting on a lot of people to fill out their census forms online,” said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “They picked a good year for it.”

Before May, very few people will have someone knock on their door. But that changes when the bureau begins following up with those who don’t voluntarily respond.

The bureau expects to hire 500,000 census takers between May and July, and has recruited more than 2.6 million applicants so far, officials said.

Because of the new health threat, training for recruits includes advice about hand washing, using sanitizer and other strategies recommended by health officials, Cook said.

“We will train people who are coming into contact with others how to be mindful of their safety and that of others,” Cook said. He said the bureau is not currently concerned that would-be census takers will drop out because of the coronavirus.

But others are concerned that could become an issue for the bureau.

“If you are in an environment where public health professionals are telling you to be safe (and keep your distance), it’s just another challenge to recruiting people to do that good, important work,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who recently sent a letter with other U.S. senators asking the Census Bureau how it plans to conduct an accurate 2020 census during the outbreak and what it is doing to protect census workers.

Census results are chiefly used to decide how many representatives each state gets in Congress – as ordered by the Constitution.

But they affect much more. State governments use the data to redraw legislative districts, cities to determine where to build schools and police stations, which roads get repaired first, even whether to put in a crosswalk at an intersection. Businesses use the data to determine where to grow and nonprofits use the figures to decide where they can be of the most help.

An undercount would have a decade of repercussions for communities.

Smith is working with the agency to schedule a briefing for Congress about how the outbreak might affect its work as well as the ability to get an accurate count.

Although the census is promoting online responses, “we also know there are a lot of people for whom that just is not going to work,” Smith said. Many of the same people who don’t have home internet access are among the most difficult to count, she said.

And the coronavirus outbreak may continue to get worse during key periods of the count.

“We don’t know where we are going to be in terms of our ability to test or where in the arc of this virus we’re going to be” when it is time for census takers to visit homes, Smith said.

Smith said she wants specific details about how the census plans to retain enough census takers to reach those who don’t respond online, by phone or by mail.

Hoping to curtail the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic Wednesday, public schools and universities have closed. 

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