The list of places where a masked worker from the Census Bureau may be knocking on front doors later this month is getting longer.
On Wednesday, the bureau announced where the next phase of census door knocking is set to start on July 23 for households that have not yet filled out a 2020 census form, including in parts of eastern Connecticut, southern Indiana, most of Kansas, central Pennsylvania and northern Virginia around Crystal City, as well as in Tacoma, Wash. and surrounding areas.
Delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the bureau is trying to complete the constitutionally mandated head count of every U.S. resident by the end of October amid growing outbreaks around the country.
Most of the country won't see census workers in their neighborhoods until the nationwide rollout of door knocking on Aug. 11.
Starting next week, the bureau is also deploying workers to hand out flyers and try to collect people's census responses using computer tablets outside of grocery stores, pharmacies and libraries in areas with low levels of census participation.
About four out of 10 households in the U.S. have not yet participated in the once-a-decade count, which is used to determine each state's share of congressional seats, Electoral College votes and an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal tax dollars for Medicare, Medicaid, schools and other public services over the next decade.
Many of the uncounted households are not likely to respond to the census online, over the phone or through the mail. For past counts, the bureau has relied on door-to-door outreach to gather accurate data about historically undercounted groups, including people of color and immigrants.
"This has been a very challenging time as the virus ebbs and flows and increases in certain areas of the country," Albert Fontenot, the Census Bureau's top official for the 2020 count, said Wednesday during a press briefing by telephone.
To try to limit the spread of COVID-19, the bureau is requiring workers to stay outside of a person's home when conducting socially-distanced interviews.
"Anybody who is positive or presumptive positive, we do not let them work until there's been at least a 14-day window before they can return to work," Tim Olson, the bureau's head of field operations for the count, said during the briefing.
The bureau, however, does not run a coronavirus testing program for its workers.
Census advocates at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC, National Urban League, and National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund are calling for the bureau to consider testing employees and installing air filters in census offices, as well as conducting a safety audit of its operations.
Last week, the bureau announced that unresponsive homes in Idaho, Maine and West Virginia, as well as parts of southeastern Louisiana, northern Missouri and northwestern Oklahoma, would be among the first to receive in-person visits beginning July 16.
Of the 12 areas selected so far for early door knocking this month, eight are in red states that went for President Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But Fontenot emphasized the bureau selected these locations based on public health indicators and logistics, including the availability of face masks, hand sanitizer and gloves for door knockers.
Concerns about partisan interference with the count, however, have been hanging over the federal government's largest statistical agency following the recent announcement of two new political appointments by the Trump administration.
On Tuesday, Peggy Gustafson, the inspector general for the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau, sent a request to the bureau for details about the responsibilities and qualifications of Nathaniel Cogley, the bureau's new deputy director for policy, and Adam Korzeniewski, Cogley's senior advisor.
Asked during the briefing if the new appointees were involved in any discussions or decisions about the bureau's door-knocking operations, Fontenot said: "No, they were not."
The appointees have also not been involved in discussions or decisions about advertising for the census, Michael Cook, the bureau's chief spokesperson, confirmed.
In a new blog post, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham appeared to respond to worries about the political appointments raised by a growing number of groups, including the American Statistical Association, American Economic Association, Population Association of America and Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics.
"Let there be no mistake, the 2020 Census is nonpartisan in its operation and support," Dillingham wrote, later noting the "outstanding leadership of the career executives with whom I am honored to serve."
It is still unclear, however, when the bureau will release the results of the 2020 census.
In April, the bureau asked Congress to push back by four months the legal deadlines for new state population counts, currently due to the president by Dec. 31, and for redistricting data, which are due to the states by March 31, 2021.
"We are past the window of being able to get those counts by those dates at this point," Fontenot said Wednesday, echoing a warning Olson raised publicly back in May.