2020 census faces coronavirus complications, suspensions

SEATTLE -- It happens every decade but it's never happened in the middle of a pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau sent out 2020 census mailers this past week but in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, the bureau announced Wednesday it is suspending field operations for the next two weeks.

"We don't have the experience with a national pandemic, we've got plans, but we don't have experience with that," said Tim Olson, associate director of U.S. Census Bureau's Field Operations. "We are, like everybody, learning as we go. How should we be doing things to make sure that people are safe, our employees are safe and the American public are safe?"

Olson said they are monitoring the outbreak and nationwide impacts on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Door knocking will be a last resort to reach households. This is the first year online responses are allowed and in less than a week, more than 11 million households have already responded, 95 percent of them online, Olson said. People can also call a toll-free number or respond by mail if a questionnaire gets sent to them.

He expects the high early turnout could be from the fact that more people are at home because of the outbreak and are checking their mail more frequently.

"In light of this pandemic and how it's affecting how all of us live, we are really urging people to respond on their own through the privacy and security of their home rather than us having to follow up with them in person," Olson said.

An accurate census count is critical to making sure communities get the right amount of resources and proper congressional representation. Undercounts would hurt communities in those two ways.

Field operations were scheduled to reach out to the houseless population later this month in person but those plans are now up in the air.

Another complication of coronavirus is at college campuses. With students going remote, the census is turning to universities and colleges to try to collect data on who usually lives on campus and to help get the word out to students who typically live off campus.

Respondents should be counted in the household where they live most of the year. For students, that is typically at school.

You can fill out your household's 2020 census online by visiting 2020census.gov.