On Saturday morning, 20 cars lined up outside of Las Palmas Library on the city’s West Side. Balloons fluttered from car doors and words painted on their windows spelled out phrases such as “2020 Census: Be Counted” and “You Count.” 

As people remain cautious of the novel coronavirus, promoting the 2020 census has pivoted to low-contact events like the Saturday car caravan planned by the San Antonio division of the League of United Latin American Citizens. The small parade of cars drove around the area in a noisy caravan, honking and waving at people to raise awareness of the 2020 census, which is still underway. The neighborhoods the cars visited were areas identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as “hard to count,” said Lupe Torres, the census events coordinator for LULAC in San Antonio and Bexar County.

“We wanted to stir up some action in these neighborhoods today,” Torres said.

San Antonio’s response rate to the decennial census currently lags behind the national average. Though census mailers started hitting local mailboxes in March, only 59.1 percent of San Antonio households have filled out the census; the national average is 62.1 percent. The response rate lags behind even that of the 2010 census, said Berta Rodriguez, the City of San Antonio census administrator.

“It makes us want to work harder,” Torres said. “It’s a challenge now, and we want to meet that challenge to increase and improve those numbers as quickly as possible because of the time element.”

The population data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years determines the distribution of federal funding to communities like San Antonio, Rodriguez said. People who use roads and highways, visit community clinics, and have kids in public schools will all be affected by the 2020 census. Getting an accurate count for future federal funding is even more important now as the novel coronavirus still plagues San Antonio and the rest of the country, she said.

“As we recover from the pandemic, understanding the population and the needs of that population is critically important,” Rodriguez said. “But the reality is people have a lot going on with this pandemic.”

Census workers also headed to nearby public housing property Cassiano Homes Apartments to knock on doors Saturday morning. Only about 50 percent of households in the area have responded to the census so far, according to Rodriguez. Even door knocking has changed to accommodate the environment created by the coronavirus pandemic, one of the census specialists explained. There’s no contact to prevent any transmission of the novel coronavirus. Instead, the census workers left large paper door hangers with census information and a QR code that leads to the 2020 census website.

Though filling out the census online only takes a few minutes, Rodriguez recognized many of the obstacles that the Census Bureau was aware of pre-coronavirus pandemic are still in place.

“Language barriers, lack of internet access, lack of understanding of the importance [of completing the census],” Rodriguez said. “But right now, the pandemic has created a focus on so many day-to-day needs. We understand people are faced with real challenges and the census is not on their radar. We’re here to say, ‘Put it on your radar.’”

Census response collection is scheduled to run through Oct. 31. Fill out the census online at my2020census.gov. Households can also respond by phone or by mail.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.