The 2020 census effort opened for counting on March 12, but the fanfare meant to encourage residents to play their part by filling out their forms was vastly overshadowed by the COVID-19 global pandemic and a series of social-distancing measures implemented in the Roaring Fork Valley.
On a regular call of the Aspen to Parachute Complete County Committee on Wednesday, members discussed alternative tactics to encourage locals to participate in the census. Many in-person events have been planned, along with one-on-one assistance and door-to-door follow-up protocols.
“Obviously the face to face interaction stuff is completely at a standstill, so we are definitely making some alternate contingency plans,” said Rachel Brenneman, campaign manager for the committee.
While much of the efforts were centered on a big push for “Census Day,” set for April 1, organizers feel they have a little wiggle room before the absolute deadline for being counted in July.
“We do have some time,” said Brian J. Meinhart, who is leading operations on the Western Slope for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Census Day is used as a point-in-time still frame for population counts. That date would typically be a safe bet to count the Roaring Fork Valley’s seasonal workforce and ultimately result in federal funding that reflects population at its highest.
However, with the shutdown of Aspen Skiing Co.’s four mountains for recreation, and the elimination of dining in restaurants statewide, along with the closure of Colorado Mountain College campuses, the transient population may have moved on by that date.
For the first time, the 2020 census is being primarily completed online. Only those who request a paper form, or live in a nontraditional residence, are given physical forms to mail in.
Meinhart said the push now is to get the word out about online participation. The 2020census.gov site is live now; if participants have not yet received mailers that went out on March 12 with an ID number, they can use their physical street address to begin the process.
Some hard-to-verify addresses or communal living facilities were set to have census workers physically knocking on each door. The protocol is to leave a packet if there is no answer, but Meinhart said workers won’t be knocking on doors for the time being.
“We are just gonna act like no one is home,” he said. “We are trying to minimize interaction as much as possible.”
He encouraged the local partners, which include governments and area nonprofits, to think of ways to bring their planned in-person events online.
“Maybe instead of doing an event we can do a Facebook live situation. It’s not as ideal but it's still a good way to help people,” he said.
Along with the campaign events meant to let the public know about the census and its importance to social services and public amenities, some organizations also were scheduling time when residents could meet with volunteers at local libraries and get assistance in using the internet to fill out the form, or get clarification on any questions they did not understand.
Meinhart said members of his team could still be reached via telephone to help with individual queries.
“It’s not as good as face to face, but if people need help we can still provide that in the interim,” he said.
The A2PCCC campaign rollback is in line with a nationwide move Tuesday to limit exposure of census workers. U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced suspension of census field operations through at least April 1.
“We will be suspending our field operations, which includes Update-Leave (hand-delivery of the census packet) and counts of those experiencing homelessness at outdoor locations,” Meinhart wrote in response to the national order. “Much of Western Colorado is in Update-Leave delivery areas … but unless that is the only method by which a particular residence is able to respond, they may still complete their questionnaire online.”
The local committee on Wednesday discussed various alternatives to in-person events to ensure all residents fill out census forms. They will be using social media to spread the word and share a new video. There are public posters in RFTA buses.
Materials that were to be targeted to school-aged children, such as a coloring book, will be made available online for parents to give their kids while they are educated remotely through at least mid-April. A tour of senior living facilities — the population most vulnerable to deadly effects of COVID-19 — has been put on hold.
Brenneman said while the planned public-information strategies are thrown off-kilter with the pandemic, there are still ways to encourage people to participate.
“People are so inundated with info about COVID-19, so (we are) trying to meet people where they are. Do you need an escape? Or things to do at home?”
She said they may try to place campaign info at trailheads, now that people are taking to the outdoors for social distancing, or place fliers in high traffic areas such as grocery markets and pharmacies.
For those who now find themselves prematurely out of work, the U.S. Census Bureau is still hiring people to help with the count. The population data compiled by the decennial census is used to dole out per-capita funding for things like food assistance and transportation and is used when drawing district lines for representation in state and national legislative bodies.