Updated March 19 at 9:25 a.m. ET
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the U.S. Census Bureau to temporarily suspend all field operations for the 2020 census for two weeks until April 1, the agency announced Wednesday in a statement on its website.
As the country continues to bunker down in response to the spread of COVID-19, the bureau's director, Steven Dillingham, says it is making the change "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."
For the next couple of weeks, the bureau is also reducing the number of on-site workers at two facilities in Jeffersonville, Ind., that process paper census forms, the bureau says in a separate statement on its website.
Another facility in Phoenix that also processes paper forms is "adopting social distancing practices in line with guidance from health authorities," Michael Cook, a spokesperson for the bureau, told NPR in a statement on Thursday.
Many census advocates are worried that the ongoing public health crisis could jeopardize the bureau's ability to accurately count the U.S. population this year as required by the Constitution.
All U.S. households, however, can continue to respond to the census on their own either online at my2020census.gov, over the phone or by paper form, if they receive one. Official letters with instructions on how to participate in the national head count are expected to arrive at most homes by Friday.
The announcement comes days after the bureau confirmed to NPR on Saturday that it is delaying deploying door knockers to college towns until April 23 and waiting until early April to start sending out census workers with computer tablets to help people complete online forms.
Still, there has been a lot of uncertainty about how the bureau plans to protect early rounds of census workers expected to go door to door to count residents in remote parts of Alaska and Maine, and in some American Indian tribal territories. Other workers were set to leave paper questionnaires in Puerto Rico and other places recovering from natural disasters. The bureau had also been preparing to conduct an in-person count of people experiencing homelessness.
Recently hired enumerators, also known as door knockers, and other field staff have been gathering around the country for training sessions. The bureau confirmed to NPR on Saturday that at least one employee, who was hired to be a census field supervisor, has tested positive for COVID-19 and is in quarantine.
"The employee is following guidance of the Iowa Department of Public Health," Michael Cook, a spokesperson for the bureau, said in a follow-up email on Sunday.
While that employee has not interacted with the public on behalf of the bureau, the census field supervisor was in contact with a "very limited number of employees" at a training session, and all of them are in self-quarantine, Cook said on Saturday.
The latest state population counts are due to the president by December 31, according to federal law.
The numbers of every person living in the U.S. determine each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes for the next decade. They also guide how as much as $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for Medicare, Medicaid and other public services are divided up among local communities.
In the written statement, Dillingham said that as of Wednesday morning, more than 11 million households have submitted a census response on their own through the Internet since March 9, when the online form at my2020census.gov was soft launched.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who helps oversee the 2020 census as the chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, says she hopes more households will continue to find ways to respond to the census during the temporary pause in field operations.
"Every American should know that this does not affect your ability to self-respond," Maloney said in a statement. "By responding now, you will ensure that the Census Bureau does not need to send a census worker to your door."
A previous version of this story said the Census Bureau is reducing the number of on-site workers at its processing center in Phoenix for paper census forms until April 1. In fact, that staffing change is happening only at two facilities in Jeffersonville, Ind.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that it is suspending field operations for the national head count until April 1 because of the coronavirus outbreak. The bureau's director, Steven Dillingham, said in a statement that the bureau is trying to protect the health and safety of the public, the bureau's employees, as well as applicants for census jobs. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang joins us from New York for more on this.
Hi there, Hansi.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So households can keep filling out their census forms online or over the phone. My household got our letter with instructions for filling out the census form. So explain to us what pausing field operations actually means for the national head count.
WANG: What this means is that training sessions for door knockers - those are on pause. The counts of people experiencing homelessness in shelters as well as outdoor locations - that's supposed to happen later this month - that's on pause. Door knockers are supposed to go out to some American Indian tribal territories, as well as workers leaving paper forms outside of homes in Puerto Rico, as well as other areas recovering from natural disasters - all of that in-person activity on pause for the next two weeks, which resolves a lot of uncertainty about how the bureau was planning to protect census workers that are out in the field right now. But it does throw off a very tight schedule to meet a constitutional mandate to get every person living in the country counted this year.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, it resolves uncertainty about health and safety but adds uncertainty about timing. Like, what can the bureau actually do to make up for these two weeks it's losing?
WANG: This is going to take a lot of coordination between the bureau, as well as homeless shelters around the country, affected tribal governments as well as the government of Puerto Rico. But the bureau is emphasizing right now that it really needs the public's help. These are numbers that it needs to collect to help redistribute the congressional seats that each state gets - and this is supposed to happen next year - as well as the numbers used to redraw voting districts and guide funding for Medicare, Medicaid, other services.
And the most accurate way to get this information, this data, the bureau says, is for households to volunteer this information and to provide it themselves by going now to my2020census.gov, calling it in at a toll-free number or mailing back a paper form if you get one in the mail because the more households fill out the form now on their own, the less pressure that is on the Census Bureau to staff up with possibly hundreds of thousands of workers needed during a public health crisis.
SHAPIRO: Is there any consideration of delaying the census? Could that be done legally?
WANG: For now, the bureau says that counting is set to end on July 31. That can be pushed back, but what cannot be pushed back, unless a new law is passed, is a deadline - December 31. The Census Bureau has to deliver state population counts to the president by December 31. If Congress wants to change that deadline, that's possible. But for now, that's what federal law says. And the longer this count takes, the more questions there'll be about how accurate the 2020 census data are.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang speaking with us about the U.S. census field operations being delayed because of the coronavirus.
WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.