The U.S. Census Bureau suspended all employee field operations on Wednesday because of the coronavirus outbreak, raising concerns that the once-a-decade could be delayed.
The decision came only one week after Census documents were just delivered to households, and it means workers will halt person-to-person efforts to ensure that residents participate in the count that determines political representation in Congress and guides federal spending.
“Beginning today, in support of guidance on what we can all do to help slow the spread of coronavirus, 2020 Census field operations will be suspended for two weeks until April 1, 2020,” U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in an announcement.
“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,” he said.
It couldn’t come at a worse time, said David Lee, Vice Chair of the Census Information Centers Steering Committee, who is based in California.
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Lee said his organization is “very concerned” that the coronavirus will mean the Census Bureau will not able to deliver accurate results to the federal government on time.
The results are due to the president in December 2020, and timing is important so congressional districts can be redrawn in time for the next election.
“I asked on the call what would happen if we couldn’t get it by then,” Lee said, referencing a call with employees that happened Tuesday. “They don’t know. Nobody knows.”
Lee said he could not see the U.S. Census Bureau delivering Census results without an in-person effort to reach certain populations, such as immigrants and lower-income households.
Events meant to promote filling out the Census have all been indefinitely postponed. The Census Bureau is working with colleges and universities on how to count students with them not at school.
The Census is available for people to fill out online, by phone or by mail, but there are many populations such as those without internet access or who have language or literacy issues who Census employees need to reach out to in person. Lee said they were supposed to start going to households in April, but that’s now become an unknown with the coronavirus.
A spokesman for the Census Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Dillingham said 11 million people had responded so far to the letter the Census Bureau mailed earlier this month.