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How the coronavirus pandemic affects the census count in central New York

Initially, plans for door-to-door canvassing were dashed as central New York shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for those involved in the 2020 Census. The pandemic wreaked havoc on plans for the every-ten-year population count.

It was just a year ago that census organizers in Syracuse kicked off plans to count central New Yorkers, focusing on populations that are traditionally undercounted. But by March plans for things like large scale public events, census computers in libraries and door-to-door canvassing were dashed as central New York shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic according to Syracuse Census Coordinator Tori Russo.

"The plans we had in place we were told were not allowed to happen right now," Russo said. "Additionally, a lot of our partners are grassroots organizations, and they immediately turn their focus to emergency response."

For example, dozens of special ambassadors were hired to go door-to-door to help people fill out the census form.

"It seemed unethical to ask people to go to door to door especially at the start of this, so we had to adapt the program and had people doing a lot of different activities," Russo said.

One of the biggest problems with the timing is evident in the location where the fewest people have responded to the census in Syracuse: neighborhoods that border of Syracuse University. That’s because the census is meant to count people where they live on April 1, and by then most of the SU students who lived off campus were long gone.

So the Census Bureau has had to do something it hadn’t planned: get administrative information from colleges and universities identifying off-campus students, according to the Census Bureau’s New York Regional Director Jeff Behler.

"So right now we’re contacting colleges and universities that have an off-campus population to see if they have administrative data for those student who lived off campus," Behler said. "We’re going to be knocking on apartment doors to reach out to apartment managers. Can they give us basic information? How many people lived in that apartment last April?"

There is a big census push this week across the state, with local activities and social messaging campaigns. And then on Monday, Behler says 2,400 enumerators will begin knocking on doors of individuals across central New York who haven’t filled out the census questionnaire. Behler says despite the challenges of the pandemic, he believes the government will get an accurate count of how many people live in Syracuse and central New York.

"If you would have told me the City of Syracuse would be at a 50% self response rate but we took away the ability for partners to bring people together, to education them, to motivate them, to give them the resources they need to fill out the census, I would have never thought we would have gotten there, but we have,” Behler said.

Census numbers determine how billions in federal funding is spent, as well as how many seats in Congress each state gets.

Correction: An ealier version of this story misspelled Jeff Behler's name. We apologize for the error. 

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.