Hundreds of Virgin Islands Census 2020 enumerators were back knocking on doors Monday, as the territory “reopened” and the decennial count resumed. The census was halted mid-March to comply with stay-at-home and social distancing orders because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daniel Doyle, the U.S. Census Bureau’s advisor for the St. Thomas-St. John District, said the hope is to wrap up field work by the end of September, a goal he described as “a little aggressive.” The original goal was the end of June.
“We’re seeing this nationwide, where there’s delays,” Doyle said.
The U.S. Census Bureau website contains a revised schedule for the multiple phases of the operation. It includes extending the deadline for the bureau to deliver all state counts to the president from Dec. 31, 2020 to April 30, 2021. Those numbers are used for congressional representative apportionment and redistricting.
The bureau has made some other accommodations because of the pandemic. In the U.S. Virgin Islands and some other territories, it has approved giving residents in special situations the option of responding to the census survey over the phone rather than in person.
However, it has maintained the distinction between stateside and territorial residents’ surveys. In most territories, residents must respond to a “long form” questionnaire administered by a census enumerator. In the states and Puerto Rico residents can fill out a short form and submit it online or through mail.
The questionnaire used in the territories includes information on a wide range of topics, including income, education and housing status. Answers are confidential and used only in the aggregate. The data is essential in determining community needs and federal funding for hundreds of programs.
When operations in the Virgin Islands paused, there were about 400 trained census takers, or enumerators, in the territory, Doyle said. Currently there are about 350, but he’s hoping to increase that number.
“We’ll continue to hire and train on an as-need basis,” he said. People can apply online on the University of the Virgin Islands website or they can apply in person at census offices. UVI partners with the bureau to actually conduct the survey. On St. Croix the Census office is across from Sunny Isle Shopping Center at Plot No. 35&35A, Castle Coakley. On St. Thomas, it’s across from the airport on the UVI campus at 866 Lindberg Bay.
Census takers are easy to spot as they wind their way through neighborhoods. They wear royal blue shirts and bright yellow vests, bearing the Census 2020 lettering and logo. They carry two photo I.D.s, one from the U.S. Census Bureau and one from UVI.
They also are equipped with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. For safety reasons, they do not wear masks unless and until they engage with a resident.
The bureau recognizes that some residents – particularly those who are elderly, have underlying health conditions or otherwise are part of the “at risk population”– may be reluctant to engage in a face-to-face interview with an enumerator. In that sort of case, the census taker can give the resident information to set up a phone interview.
“Our preference is still in-person interviews,” Doyle said. That’s partly because the questionnaire is long (it usually takes about 45 minutes to complete) and designed to be enumerator-led. It’s also because the in-person process allows for matching the residence with the resident. “The geography is a big thing.”
While the bureau has made changes to protect the public and its field workers, it also made adjustments to its offices, Doyle said. Instead of a large open area where staff worked together, there are now sections partitioned with plexiglass and dotted with sanitizing stations. Workers wear masks and the flow of people is limited.