Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.
This week surrounding the official April 1 Census Day was when groups statewide planned mass events to help Utahns fill out census forms — from a festival in West Valley City with mariachi bands and dancers (and computers to complete forms) to gatherings at libraries and colleges.
It isn’t happening.
“With social distancing, the festivals had no choice but to cancel,” said Evan Curtis, co-chairman of the Utah Complete Count Committee. “Because of the coronavirus, all the libraries are closed.”
So, Utah groups now are moving to a Plan B.
“A lot of activities are still taking place. But now they are virtual” and online, Dennis Johnson, deputy regional Census Bureau director said in an interview.
Utah had split $500,000 in grants to a variety of organizations that work with hard-to-count populations such as minorities and immigrants, and many planned a variety of celebrations and get-togethers this week to help people fill out their forms. “Now they are looking at creative ways they can enhance their social media presence,” Curtis said.
For example, he said some are using chances for gift cards for people who join in challenges to complete forms. He says it allows trusted voices in minority and immigrant communities to encourage participation, even if they can’t do it in person.
“Some of our elected officials are doing Facebook Live presentations,” Johnson added, noting the Census Bureau itself also is conducting an advertising blitz right now. “People are getting the word out.”
He also sees extra willingness to participate with the census because of COVID-19.
“Everyone understands we’re in a very difficult and challenging time. Everybody is looking to do their part and looking to help,” he said. “That will help make sure the census is accurate.”
COVID-19 is creating some tricky situations for counting college students and missionaries who were sent home, and groups are trying to help them maneuver through that.
“Universities had planned events for this week to get students to fill out their forms. But of course, students are not on campus,” Curtis said. So many schools are trying to contact them online about how they should fill out forms.
While the census generally requires counting people where they reside on April 1 (Census Day), Johnson said the Census Bureau is stressing that college students should be counted at their usual school address and consider the COVID-19 closures as temporary.
“It would really have a drastic impact on college towns like Logan, Provo and Ephraim if they don’t have the college population counted there,” Curtis said. It could cost them in government funding formulas, and in political representation that is based on population.
Students who lived in campus dorms are included in “group quarters” counts performed by universities and the Census Bureau. Those who live in off-campus apartments are asked to choose one resident as the head of household to fill out the form online.
Normally, they would have received a code in the mail needed to fill out forms online — but college students likely left before receiving that. Curtis said codes can be found online by going to my2020census.com, click to start filling out a form and then look for a link that says, “If you do not have a code, click here.”
Provo apparently will miss out on including the population from the large Missionary Training Center there operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was closed because of COVID-19.
“If they’re not at the missionary [training center], we would count them at the place they are staying or where they spend most of their time currently,” Johnson said.
However, he notes that the church sending many missionaries home early from around the world might give Utah somewhat of an overall bonus in the count this year. Normally, missionaries from Utah living abroad or in other states are not counted here. But since many are now home, they are.
Of note in the 2000 census, Utah just missed an extra U.S. House of Representatives seat by 80 people (which instead went to North Carolina). That was blamed in large part on not including Utahns who were on foreign missions. It was another decade before the Beehive State gained its fourth House seat.
Despite the challenges, Utah is ahead of the curve in responding to the census so far.
“Truthfully, the state of Utah is doing better than most — 40% of the households that we’ve sent out invitations to have already responded,” Johnson said, compared to a national average of 36.2%.
Davis County had the highest response rate in the state at 50%. The rates in other Wasatch Front counties were 43.2% in Salt Lake County, 45.3% in Utah County and 41.2% in Weber County.
The lowest response rate in the state was 0.4% in tiny Rich County. However, in some rural counties where many residents use post office box addresses, invitations to participate were not sent by mail. They were to be delivered in person by census workers. However, the Census Bureau suspended all field work through at least April 15.
Curtis urges rural residents not to wait for invitations, but to go online to find the codes to participate by entering physical addresses.
Johnson said responding will help local communities because the census determines how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending is divided, and how many U.S. House members each state receives — and also determines state and local representation.
“Looking at the numbers is how we determine where the money winds up. For each local community, that’s critical,” he said. “A good count now will help the community not only this year, but for the next 10 years. For many communities, it’s literally life and death.”