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Virus Hits Census; Public Access ‘Kiosks’ Slashed
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Virus Hits Census; Public Access ‘Kiosks’ Slashed

IMPERIAL VALLEY — Seemingly forgotten amid the COVID-19 flu pandemic is the fact that the nation is also in the midst of its decennial Census count, and the virus’ impact on the effort could be long-lasting.

Counts determine local municipalities’ shares of hundreds of billions in federal funding and also set legislative districts. The official “Census Day” is April 1 but the tally flanks it for months on either side of that date.

Now, one vital link to upping the local count is being hit hard. It’s devastating news in a county that due to its immigrant and rural population is among the nation’s hardest to count. 

About 20 of the 30 “kiosks” that were planned around Imperial County to assist residents in being counted will not open out of an abundance of caution against COVID-19, county officials said March 18.

Meanwhile, the county was expecting guidance and further instructions from state Census representatives on how to proceed with outreach efforts amid COVID-19 prevention measures, Esperanza Colio Warren, Imperial County deputy executive officer, said March 18.

Colio Warren is directing the Imperial County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee.

Decision Details

The decision to either close or never open the bulk of the kiosks has been made at the subcommittee level by individual cities and nonprofit groups tasked with assisting residents in difficult-to-count communities, Colio Warren explained.

An example is the decision to not open the two planned kiosks in Calexico at Camarena Memorial Library and Calexico Neighborhood House, said Ricardo Ortega, a Neighborhood House consultant who is co-leading the Calexico 2020 Census Collaborative.

The collaborative is made up of the city of Calexico, Neighborhood House, the Calexico Housing Authority and Campesinos Unidos.

The Calexico subcommittee met the afternoon of March 17 and decided to not open the kiosks due to COVID concerns. It sent a letter to Colio Warren informing her that the committee would focus its efforts on a social media campaign and promoting that residents respond to the census by doing so online, via traditional mail and especially via telephone assistance, Ortega said March 18.

County officials were asked whether COVID-19 precautions would hamper local efforts to increase the count in difficult-to-reach communities.

“Only time will tell. This is an issue we have never seen before,” said Linsey Dale, county public information officer, who works with the county’s census committee.

The state is working closely with federal census officials to strategize on count outreach efforts, Colio Warren said, adding, “We will know more today (March 18).” 

Kiosks Problematic

With Imperial County having some of the most difficult-to-count tracts, or neighborhoods, in the state, the county was awarded a total of $384,000 in state grants to pay for outreach, education and assistance in getting the count increased in problematic areas.

The county committee distributed much of that funding to individual city subcommittees and nonprofit organizations to canvass communities door-to-door in preparation for the count, which officially began March 12. As part of that, staffing kiosks was one way to increase the count, especially for the elderly and non-English speakers.

Under widespread COVID-19 precautions, those age 65 and older are being asked to sequester themselves indoors. The general public is being asked to practice social distancing in the face of the spread of the virus and to limit gathering in public places with too many people.

Social distancing is generally defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being six feet apart from another individual.

By definition, the kiosks planned for census outreach run counter to all those precautions as they are intended to assist the elderly at public locations with one-on-one interaction.

On March 13, Colio Warren sent out an email to the local subcommittees and nonprofit agencies working with the county to make recommendations on further canvassing activities and regarding the operation of the kiosks amid ongoing COVID concerns.

In the email she recommended keeping hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies on hand at the kiosks and limiting face-to-face contact during door-to-door canvassing.

“Finally, we just wanted the share the message that was received from the (California) Census 2020 Office. It is as follows: ‘Use your own discretion and do what you believe is right to protect the health and well-being of your staff and community members,’” Colio Warren wrote in the email.

Fed Response Limited

Calexico subcommittee members have never used face-to-face contact as part of their volunteers’ canvassing methods; rather, Ortega said volunteers were advised to ring the doorbell or knock on the door and leave informational/educational fliers on the doorsteps of residents.

Colio Warren was asked how the uncertainty surrounding COVID could affect how the grant money was awarded, disbursed and ultimately used. Both she and Dale said they did not immediately know.

Although COVID concerns have been playing out in virtually all aspects of public and private life over the last few weeks, Census officials have been slow to address how the virus could affect the count. Census media contacts at the regional level have directed inquiries to the state census office, while state census officials have referred this newspaper to a general press email at the national level.

The last time the U.S. Census Bureau addressed COVID was in a March 11 press release, and that did not mention any delays in the count or changes in the federal calendar associated with the count.

While April 1 is National Census Day, April 30 is the last day to self-respond. Census workers are scheduled to follow-up with residents in door-to-door visits in May through July. The final count is due to the White House on Dec. 31.

This story is featured in the Mar 19, 2020 e-Edition.

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