As Census Efforts Ramp Up, Coronavirus Fears Complicate the Game Plan

As Census Efforts Ramp Up, Coronavirus Fears Complicate the Game Plan
A couple wears masks and gloves as officials found the first case of Coronavirus in the city, March 2, 2020.
A couple wears masks and gloves as officials found the first case of Coronavirus in the city, March 2, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Rachel Holliday Smith and Trone Dowd for THE CITY.

Originally posted on March 2, by THE CITY.

New York households will start to receive the long-awaited 2020 census this month — just as the city contends with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

In theory, the spread of COVID-19 shouldn’t have any effect on the 2020 Census, said Esmeralda Simmons, a longtime census expert and member of the New York State Complete Count Commission.

The census for the first time can be completed online, and door-to-door contact with those who haven’t filled it out won’t start until May, she noted.

But fear may get in the way much more than any real effect of the virus — and at least one information session has already been canceled this week as outreach efforts encouraging people to participate in the crucial once-a-decade count are ramping up.

“The fact that there are new cases cropping up is disturbing, but it’s not an epidemic in the United States,” said Simmons. “But that has nothing to do with [the public’s] fear. It’s irrational.”

Tough Job Gets Tougher

The outbreak arrives at a key moment of the census rollout: the home stretch of hiring enumerators, the people who make the in-person visits to help nonrespondents fill out census forms.

Well before news broke about the virus, the Census Bureau was already struggling to fill those jobs, and recently increased the pay from $25 to $28 an hour to attract more workers.

“I think a lot of people will be fearful that maybe this is not the job for them,” Simmons said.

The Census Bureau regional office for New York referred questions to the agency’s Washington headquarters, which responded with a Feb. 25 statement from Census Director Steven Dillingham.

He said the bureau has protocols to deal with the outbreak and is coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the effort moves forward.

“Operations for the 2020 Census and our ongoing household surveys have procedures built in that specifically anticipate epidemics and pandemics, and we will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep those up to date,” he said.

The Corona Effect

But New York census experts have their doubts. Deputy Manhattan Borough President Aldrin Bonilla, a longtime veteran of the census in New York and the head of the Manhattan Complete Count Committee, believes there will be “serious impacts” from COVID-19 on the census.

He’s already seeing an effect. He was set to speak on a panel this week about the rollout of the census hosted by LatinoJustice, an uptown human rights group.

Aldrin Bonilla is focused on the census.
Aldrin Bonilla is focused on the census. Photo: Ben Fractenberg /THE CITY

But on Monday, the venue for the event postponed it “due to the recent coronavirus diagnosis,” an email from organizers said.

LatinoJustice told THE CITY the group is now working to reschedule the event.

Still, Bonilla worries he’ll see similar postponements or cancellations — which may mean “less forums, less workshops, less public presentations,” he said.

“We were going to educate a whole host of people on this panel,” he said. “The impacts are going to be felt and to what extent does that get multiplied?”

Simmons says the census, which helps determine federal funding formula and Congressional districts,  is too important to pause.

“This triggers many, many things, including redistricting and reapportionment,” she said. “And those things need to go on.”

‘Facts Defeat Fear’

During a joint news conference on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York officials have been gearing up for the coronavirus’s inevitable arrival for weeks.

The state has the capacity to test up to 1,000 people a day, Cuomo said. He added he was requesting a $40 million appropriation for the State Department of Health to procure more staff, equipment and any other resources needed to fight the coronavirus.

Cuomo also noted that the most vulnerable New Yorkers are people with weakened immune systems and seniors with pre-existing health conditions.

“In this situation, the facts defeat fear,” Cuomo said. “We’ve gone through this before. When you look at the reality here, about 80% of the people who are infected with the coronavirus self-resolve.”

On Monday evening, Cuomo tweeted that he would require New York health insurers to “waive cost sharing associated with testing for #coronavirus.”

De Blasio said the city has 1,200 hospital beds set aside to handle coronavirus patients without affecting day-to-day operations.

The city’s testing operation will be up and running by Friday. The city has spent $3.8 million on coronavirus preparation and officials are looking to allocate at least $20 million in additional funding, according to the Office of Management and Budget director Melanie Hartzog.

The mayor said uninsured New Yorkers can call 311 about getting tested if they are experiencing any symptoms associated with the new coronavirus.

As the state and city scramble to contain the bug, both had already budgeted funds to combat misinformation and beef up census efforts well before the coronavirus became an international crisis.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo speak about the Coronavirus at a Midtown news conference, March 2, 2020.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo speak about the Coronavirus at a Midtown news conference, March 2, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The state put aside $70 million for the census. The money will go towards outreach in all of New York’s 62 counties, though $5 million will be set aside to target specific communities that see low census response rates later this year.

There have been similar efforts here in the city. Last year, NYC Census 2020, the mayor’s office and the City Council budgeted $19 million to mobilize community-based organizations to conduct outreach in neighborhoods that saw low response rates last time around in 2010.

More than 150 organizations were awarded grants of up to $250,000 to get New Yorkers up to speed on why responding to the census is so important. The funds are part of the city’s larger $40 million census effort, which will pay for everything from volunteer recruitment to city partnerships with agencies like the city’s public libraries, and advertising.

Full Steam Ahead

Getting a complete count will take all the help New York can get.

Bonilla said he’s worried most about “group quarter enumeration” — concentrated populations who may be more at risk to contract illnesses from each other, such as people in homeless shelters, dormitories and jails.

Simmons is worried about certain hard-to-count communities — including in many black neighborhoods, parts of the Russian Jewish community and in certain Asian immigrant areas — where it’s been hard to hire local enumerators.

But the census was always going to be a challenge, and ultimately, she believes the virus — or fear of getting it — won’t be able to stop the process.

“I don’t believe that people will stop going to church. I don’t believe that they’ll stop going to the senior citizens’ center. I don’t believe they’re going to stop going to community meetings,” Simmons said — all places where outreach workers will be, asking people to fill out their forms.

“It’s full steam ahead,” she said.

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