March 18, 2020 / 7:45 PM / 21 days ago

Coronavirus prompts suspension of 2020 U.S. Census field operations for two weeks

(Reuters) - Field operations for the 2020 U.S. Census were suspended on Wednesday until April 1 because of the coronavirus, fueling concerns the pandemic could threaten the accuracy of the tally used to determine political representation and federal aid.

Households can still take the census by filling it out online at my2020census.gov, using a unique 12-digit code sent to each household by mail, the Census Bureau said.

Population data collected during the once-a-decade count determines how the U.S. Congress and state legislatures divvy up voting districts and guides the federal government in allocating $1.5 trillion a year in aid.

Bureau director Steven Dillingham said in a statement that the bureau was monitoring the spread of the coronavirus and would adjust future operations if necessary.

While Dillingham did not specify which operations are suspended, the primary fieldwork happening now includes counting the homeless, and delivering census forms to regions that, for various reasons, cannot receive them by mail.

The biggest field operation - the door-knocking campaign to count households that do not take the survey on their own - is to begin in late May, still on-schedule.

While the suspension may not hurt the tally in the short term, continued disruption would “increase the risk of census results that won’t be acceptably accurate or fair,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former congressional staffer overseeing census matters.

Dillingham said more than 11 million U.S. households have already responded, and he encouraged people to answer the survey online.

The 2020 census has faced other challenges. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office last month reported the bureau was behind in its recruiting of census workers. Reuters reported last year that the bureau’s new IT infrastructure was vulnerable to glitches and hacks.

The Trump administration’s effort to add a question asking census respondents whether they are U.S. citizens - though later invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court - also incited fear in Hispanic and immigrant communities that the information could be used against them.

Representative Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee, said in a statement that the panel was monitoring the situation “to ensure that the Census Bureau takes all necessary steps to keep people safe while conducting a full, fair and accurate census.”

Reporting by Nick Brown in New York and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool

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