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Census Bureau drop-outs complicate door-knocking efforts

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Bob Garick stands by the entrance to his home Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Oviedo, Fla. Garick was looking forward to being a field supervisor during the door-knocking phase of the 2020 census, but as the number of new coronavirus cases in Florida shot up last month, he changed his mind and decided not to take the job. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Bob Garick was looking forward to being a field supervisor during the door-knocking phase of the 2020 census, but as the number of new coronavirus cases in Florida shot up last month, he changed his mind.

With widespread home visits for the 2020 census set to begin next week, the Census Bureau is losing workers like Garick to pandemic fears. The attrition could complicate the bureau's plans to ramp up efforts to reach the hardest to count communities, including minorities and immigrants, on a shortened schedule.

“Before, I thought it was my civic duty, to do my part, but now it’s like the health concerns are too great,” said Garick, 54, a software development director who is between jobs.

Door-knockers started heading out last month in six areas of the country in a test-run of the most labor-intensive part of the 2020 census, and their ranks have increased with each passing week as more locations were added. But next week, the full army of 500,000 census-takers will be in the field for the first time, knocking on the doors of more than a third of U.S. households that haven't yet responded to the once-a-decade head count.

The census helps determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed and how many congressional seats each state gets.

Bureau officials acknowledge that they've had door-knockers, also known as enumerators, come to training but then not show up for work. The door-knockers wear cloth face masks and come equipped with hand sanitizer and cellphones.

“We are seeing folks who are a little hesitant because of the COVID environment,” Deborah Stempowski, the Census Bureau’s assistant director for decennial programs, told a conference of data users last week.

Other non-COVID factors are also playing a role. Some enumerators are uncomfortable with the technology, as iPhones have replaced the clipboards of censuses past. The pandemic has forced training to be held mostly online and there’s less in-person interaction with supervisors should enumerators need help, Stempowski said.