Updated March 28, 9:59 p.m.
While tens of millions of U.S. households continue to fill out 2020 census forms on their own, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing the Census Bureau to suspend field operations for the once-a-decade head count for two more weeks until April 15.
The bureau announced the change Saturday, more than a week after it said it was waiting until April 1 to resume hiring door knockers who are expected to visit unresponsive households later this year, as well as in-person counting in remote communities in Alaska, Maine and some American Indian tribal territories. The latest schedule change also pushes back when workers will continue leaving paper forms outside of homes in some rural communities, as well as in Puerto Rico and other areas recovering from natural disasters.
“The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone who will go through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions,” the bureau, which is one of NPR’s financial sponsors, said in a statement.
The timeline shift is the latest in a series of changes the bureau has made to salvage plans for the constitutionally mandated count of every person living in the U.S. The numbers are used to redistribute political representation and an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for Medicare, Medicaid and other public services to local communities for the next decade.
Last week, the bureau announced it was reducing the number of on-site workers at its facilities in Jeffersonville, Ind., that process paper questionnaires.
NPR has learned an employee at the site has tested positive for COVID-19. The bureau found out about the diagnosis on Friday, and the employee, who is now in quarantine, has not been at the facilities since March 17, Michael Cook, a spokesperson for the bureau, confirmed.
“We strongly encourage all employees to practice ‘social distancing’ to slow the spread of this coronavirus,” the bureau said in a message distributed to employees at the agency’s National Processing Center.
The building where the employee worked in Jeffersonville — which is located across the river from Louisville, Ky. — will receive a “deep cleaning,” according to the message, and employees have been advised not to enter it “until further notice.” Cook says “out of an abundance of caution,” the bureau canceled overtime work in Jeffersonville that was scheduled this weekend for the 2020 census.
Still, the agency is continuing to urge households to submit their legally required responses on their own now at my2020census.gov, over the phone or by paper form if they receive one. Reminder postcards from the bureau started arriving in the mail this week for households that are expected to self-respond to the census but have not done so yet.
As of Saturday, close to a third of those households nationwide have completed a form, according to the latest data released by the bureau.
Some census advocates worry, however, about lower response rates in some communities with greater shares of historically undercounted groups, including people of color and immigrants. The coronavirus outbreak has forced many community organizations to abandon in-person outreach plans and rely more on texting, phone banking and online videos (including one by New York City’s 2020 census campaign that features rap artist Cardi B) to encourage people to participate in the count.
As the pandemic continues, Cook says the bureau is continuing to monitor conditions for workers at its facility in Phoenix that also processes paper census forms, as well as at more than 200 local census offices, 10 call centers and six regional centers around the country.
Earlier this month, the bureau learned that a recently-hired census field supervisor in Iowa tested positive for the coronavirus.
Cook says suspending overtime work this weekend in Jeffersonville because of the latest COVID-19 case does not “negatively impact” the bureau’s ability to process the 30 million paper questionnaires it has been preparing to collect.
“We have procedures and processes in place to ensure that the work of the 2020 census continues,” Cook says, noting that the bureau is still “on target” to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to deliver to the president the latest state population counts that are used to determine each state’s share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes through 2030.