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Coronavirus halts U.S. Census field operations just as they kick into gear

The pandemic is threatening the Census. Here’s why that matters.

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau has suspended its field operations for two weeks, the agency announced Wednesday.

“The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions,” said Steven Dillingham, the Bureau’s director, in a statement.

Field operations are suspended until April 1, according to the statement. In addition, smaller surveys that the bureau conducts will replace in-person visits with phone calls where possible.

The suspension comes just before what will be the busiest time of the year for the agency.

April 1 is considered Census Day, the point in time at which the population is counted. But planning and hiring for the effort started years ago.

Earlier this month, the agency began sending mailers to residents across the United States. Many have already received an invitation to fill out the census online. Others received the paper form directly, along with a return envelope.

Any household that hasn’t filled out a form by mid-April will then get the full questionnaire in the mail.

It’s what happens next that the coronavirus pandemic may threaten the most. The Census plans that about two in every five households won’t respond to the mailed forms at all. But the agency still needs to count them.

So more than 420,000 field staff nationwide work to follow up with those people. Early “non-response follow up” is supposed to start in April and focus on college students living on campus. (The agency already had to change those plans, it announced Sunday, with so many dorms closed to students.)

But the bulk of the effort is scheduled to last from mid-May to mid-August. Census staff will need to eventually knock on people’s doors all over the country. The task’s difficulty is already compounded by language barriers and mistrust of government.

The U.S. conducts the census once every decade, with the goal of counting every person living in the country. The ordeal is the government’s largest non-military mobilization.

Countless decisions are made based on the census. The U.S. House of Representatives apportions its members based on the count in each state.

And budgets and grants are often tied to data from the decennial census. According to a George Washington University study, Florida received more than $44 billion in 2016 from federal programs that used data collected in the 2010 count.

Undercounting a region or a population can mean people go with fewer schools or hospitals in the future. Children younger than five, as well as black and Hispanic people, are more likely to be undercounted, research has found.

The Census tries to minimize that through its field operations, which are now suspended.

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