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The U.S. census launched amid a pandemic. How will that change efforts to count all Marylanders?

If things had gone according to plan, outreach workers with CASA of Maryland would be going door-to-door now, encouraging Latino households in the Baltimore region to participate in the U.S. census.

But as the new coronavirus spreads throughout the region and officials told Marylanders to stay home, the immigrant rights group shifted to virtual outreach late last week.

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"Now they’re calling and texting because they can’t knock on doors,” said Elizabeth Alex, CASA’s chief of organizing and leadership.

The group is among the advocates who have worked with state and local officials in Maryland to ensure that historically hard-to-count populations — including immigrants, black people and young children — are accurately tallied.

Now it’s up in the air what will become of those months of planning. The U.S. census launched last week in the midst of a public health crisis that grows by the day.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who chairs the National Governors Association, said Thursday the governors will ask the federal government for “a delay or greater flexibility” for the completion of the census.

And on Wednesday, the bureau suspended its field operations until April 1.

“The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions,” bureau director Steven Dillingham said in a statement.

The bureau began mailing out census invitations last week. Government officials are strongly urging everyone to respond on a computer, smartphone or tablet. People also can respond by mail or phone.

As of Wednesday, 11 million American households have responded, Dillingham said. This is the first year that everyone is invited to respond to the census online.

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In an interview, Maryland Planning Secretary Robert McCord said people should take advantage of that new option, especially given the virus outbreak. He emphasized that census takers will not have to visit the homes of people who complete the census right away. They only knock on doors of people who don’t respond.

So if someone responds right away by mail, phone or online, "they don’t have to have any contact with anybody else‚” McCord said.

In late May, census takers around the country are scheduled to begin visiting households that don’t respond.

The once-in-a-decade event helps determine congressional redistricting and federal funding allocations for everything from school lunches to road construction to community mental health services. Maryland gets roughly $1,825 in federal aid each year for each person who is counted — or $18,250 per person over the next decade.

Outreach activities have suffered already in light of the pandemic. Around the state, events that were planned this month to promote the census are canceled, from a library information session in northwest Baltimore to a “Census Palooza” celebration with food, music and games in College Park.

Diana Elliott, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute, said suspending field operations is "absolutely the right move to look out for the health and well-being of the census staff.”

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But such outreach activities play a critical role in building community trust and encouraging people to participate in the census, she said.

“So much of relationship building takes place face-to-face,” said Elliott, who formerly worked as a family demographer at the Census Bureau.

Already, several factors posed challenges to ensuring an accurate 2020 count, including growth in historically undercounted groups — such as renters and immigrants — and fear over the possibility of a citizenship question.

“I think in this sort of situation we have multiple risk factors that threaten the fairness of the count in 2020,” with groups including black people and immigrants disproportionately affected, Elliott said.

She added that research shows that the populations who already are most likely to self-respond to the census, such as homeowners, also are more likely to participate in census surveys online.

Maryland Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, a member of the Complete Count Committee advising the state on census preparation, said she is urging everyone to respond right away.

“I think that the positive is that this is a do-it-yourself in your home, isolated activity,” said Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat. “But there also a number of operational challenges.”

With people stuck in their homes, and many scrolling through their phones more than usual, online outreach could be even more critical, Wilkins said.

“I think social media is even more necessary right now,” she said.

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