SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns began hopping online and filling out their forms earlier than the nation as a whole ahead of Census Day on Wednesday, but the early progress belied a last-minute snare.
The coronavirus outbreak has cut into a yearlong push to make sure as many as possible are included in the once-a-decade count, which helps decide how much federal money goes to the Beehive State.
“We’re doing well, but we certainly have a long way to go,” said Evan Curtis, co-chairman of the state’s Complete Count Committee. “A lot of the points of contact that these hard-to-count populations had with trusted voices in their communities have been severed.”
Organizers in West Valley City had no choice but to call off a planned Saturday festival with interpreters and laptops to help visitors fill out the forms, plus mariachi and other cultural performances. An effort to assist low-income and homeless Utahns in answering the questions at Salt Lake City’s Fourth Street Clinic also has been canceled.
In Tooele, the closure of the city library has blocked people from its in-person help center, although its employees remain available by phone.
In order to reach groups more likely to be missed in the count — like college students, older Utahns and immigrant communities — librarians and others now must get creative, said Jami Carter, director of the Tooele City Library.
“Our message as a library is that you belong here, and the census encompasses that. You need to be counted because you matter,” Carter said. “COVID will not stop us from doing what we’re doing, we just have to adjust.”
Carter had planned to throw a Monday night birthday bash for the census, heralding its 26th rollout in the history of the nation. Now, she said she hopes to set up an online drawing so those who have participated can enter to win a gift card to a local eatery or shop.
Carter plans to use Facebook to promote the contest and get the word out to Utahns who have spent long days homeschooling their kids or trying to figure out how to make ends meet. For many in those situations, the questionnaire “is about the last thing in your mind that you’re thinking about,” she said.
While several community leaders and groups had planned events, West Valley City Councilman Jake Fitisemanu said many have been quick to change to a digital approach, including catchy hashtags on social media, invitations to submit videos and other posts. The change is fitting, said Fitisemanu, also a member of the state’s complete count panel.
“I think it’s actually timely in a strange way, because this is the first year the census is being conducted online,” he said. “Seeing the creativity and flexibility of outreach staff has been really impressive.”
The Beehive State, where more than 2 in 5 households have participated as of Tuesday, the Census Bureau reported on its website, besting the national response rate of 36.2% — and also leading its western neighbors. So far, the vast majority in Utah and around the country signed in online.
But because of the delay in field operations, Utah’s rate doesn’t include many rural Utahns who have yet to receive their census invitations in the mail. Census employees won’t be knocking on doors in Utah for some time. Over the weekend, the Census Bureau called off field operations until April 15.
One good thing is that Utahns are paying attention to the news and to social media, said Curtis, the co-chairman of the state committee,
“Really this whole crisis — between the pandemic and the recent earthquake — really just underscores how important the census is,” he said, noting the count will help determine future federal funding for disaster preparedness and health care.
The coronavirus has thrown still other curveballs in Utah’s lead-up to the census.
Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who returned home early to Utah amid coronavirus concerns will be counted, in a break from the norm. And many of the state’s college students have moved away as their classes went online.
While those in the dorms are already included in the count, off-campus renters should choose a single roommate as head of household, Curtis said. That student can visit my2020census.gov, fill in their usual college-town address and respond.