The San Antonio Area Census Office at 1933 Dollarhide Ave. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The coronavirus pandemic dealt a setback to Bexar County and San Antonio officials working to ensure a complete count of the area’s population when the U.S. Census Bureau had to halt field operations.

The census went live on March 12, the day after the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic. As state and federal officials took measures to prevent spread of the virus, the Census Bureau stopped its workforce from knocking on doors and leaving paper census forms for hard-to-count areas.

That stoppage is scheduled to continue until April 15, but that return date could be pushed forward, said assistant regional census manager Jerome Garza, who is based in Dallas.

Not only have outreach efforts had to pivot, people’s priorities have shifted, said Bexar County census liaison Dwayne Robinson.

“Obviously, [the coronavirus] is impacting the census tremendously because people’s three primary concerns right now would be their health, their finances [or] job, and their children,” he said. “So it’s tough.”

As of April 6, 43 percent of households in Bexar County have responded to the once-a-decade census online or by phone and 42 percent of San Antonio households have done the same. That’s slightly behind the national response rate of 45 percent, but above the Texas response rate of 40 percent.

“We are very pleased,” City census administrator Berta Rodriguez said. “Of course, we know we still have a lot of work to do to get to that 100 percent complete rate.”

Robinson said he was encouraged by the response rate of suburban cities in Bexar County. Many of them, including Leon Valley and China Grove, have higher response rates than San Antonio proper. Find response rates across the United States here.

Now, Rodriguez and Robinson are both focused on keeping response rates up. The City and County’s committee charged with getting as complete a census count as possible can no longer use large events as opportunities to inform people about the census, which poses a challenge, Robinson said.

“[If] the Archdiocese of San Antonio is doing an event, and they got thousands of people there, we’d simply be there with our table and talk about the census,” he said. “You can’t do that anymore. We have to pivot from what we call high-touch events to now doing it through media and social media, and media campaigns.”

The Census Bureau is still recruiting up to 4,500 temporary census workers in the Bexar County area but has halted the hiring process for now, spokeswoman Ximena Alvarez said. Jobs range from recruiting managers to census takers. None of the employees in the Denver region, which covers 12 states including Texas, have been furloughed, she added.

The Census Bureau is also working on a new timeline and procedures for the data collection process to ensure safety for the public and its workers, Garza said.

In the meantime, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County are still encouraging residents to respond to the census online or by phone. Rodriguez said without schools being in session, it’s harder to reach parents through family specialists who work in schools or parent teacher associations.

In addition to traditional direct-mail notices, census messages started appearing on video screens at over 130 gas stations in Bexar County on April 1, and will soon show up on the reverse sides of receipts from Family Dollar and Dollar General stores.

“We’re looking at ways to message the census where people are still going, knowing we can’t engage one-on-one,” Rodriguez said.

The coronavirus pandemic may have presented problems for census officials, but it also highlighted the need for a complete count, Rodriguez said. Not only does census data determine congressional and state-level representation, but it also helps the federal government allocate funding. As the San Antonio area recovers from the impacts of COVID-19, an accurate population count affects federal funding for education, health care, and emergency services.

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“It’s even more critically important now,” she said. “We’re going to see the need for recovery from the pandemic. … If we do not have an accurate population count, we can’t show what our true needs are from that federal funding perspective.”

Here are some important things to remember about the census:

  • The census is confidential. No other agencies can obtain the information, and the Census Bureau does not share the information.
  • The census will not ask for anything personal, such as bank or Social Security information.
  • The census is nine questions long. There is no citizenship question.
  • Fill out the census at my2020census.gov. You can also call the Census Bureau to answer the questions over the phone. Call 844-330-2020 for English and 844-468-2020 for Spanish.
Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the San Antonio Report.