Detroit adapts census outreach strategy amid coronavirus pandemic

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city has postponed door-knocking and upward of 100 outreach events planned to promote the 2020 Census as a precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Vicky Kovari, executive director of Detroit's 2020 Census campaign, said public events scheduled at churches, block club meetings and senior living facilities are being delayed for the time being to protect the health of residents and 110 census volunteers.

To cope, the team instead is ramping up its social media and telephone outreach strategies and with new restrictions that have shutdown eateries and entertainment venues statewide are urging residents to use this "social distancing" time to complete the forms that decide federal funding for everything from critical health and childcare programming and public safety.

"It's sometimes hard for people to understand the impact that filling out a form has. Of all the forms we fill out, this is probably right now one of the most important things that they could do," she said. "It's so easy, and it's not going to take a lot of time. The implications are very long-term."

Detroit 2020 Census Campaign executive director Victoria Kovari looks over a Detroit map showing city neighborhoods that were under-counted in the 2010 census.

Historically, the census under-counts people of color, immigrants, young children and people living in poverty, officials have said. The volume of vacant homes and poverty in Detroit, along with sparse internet access, has made it among the toughest communities to count.

Kovari noted there are three ways residents can complete the census; filling out the paper form that either has or should be arriving by mail, online at or via a toll-free number (844) 330-2020.

Through Friday, households will receive the first of several invitations to participate in the census, officials said, adding the process takes about 10 minutes. 

The city is urging residents to complete the forms as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday imposes a statewide shutdown that goes into effect at 3 p.m. for in-house operations of bars and restaurants, theaters, gyms and libraries.

Detroit is in the midst of an aggressive $1.7 million campaign to boost its response rate to the census. In 2010, only 64% of households had submitted their forms prior to the U.S. Census Bureau sending out doorknockers, the lowest of any major city.

Mayor Mike Duggan has said Detroit's participation sets the city's long-term trajectory and estimated the poor response cost the city about $300 million over the last decade.

Kovari said the city gets about $5,000 per person, per year in federal funding. Each federal dollar, she said, goes toward federal programs like school lunches, special education and head start programs, grants for police and fire, roads and other services. 

The response also could dictate whether Michigan loses another congressional seat and another vote in the electoral college. 

"If you are not counted, we lose that money," Kovari said. "And over 10 years, that's a lot of money. It's something that impacts people every day and every person."

Census campaign organizers had planned about 90 events in March and April to bolster participation. These ranged from small and large block club meetings, to gatherings at senior complexes and religious institutions.

They held an event with about 30 people on Friday but canceled a Saturday event at a Detroit high school and are pushing back all of the upcoming events, Kovari said. 

The city also intended to host coffee and doughnut gatherings at more than a dozen senior buildings in Detroit's Midtown and downtown areas to ensure residents there were able to access computers to complete paperwork with online invitation codes coming their way from the census. 

More than 150 churches had signed up for "Census Sunday" to educate and inform parishioners on the importance of being counted. 

"We still have them in our repertoire but can't pull the trigger on those because of the situation. We have to move away from events," Kovari said. 

"We're not putting a date on those things, but we are very much hoping to reschedule the in May, June or even July, once we know the trajectory of this virus, at least here. We'll be keeping tabs and communicating to volunteers every week, giving them updates."

Instead, Kovari said, the city's volunteer base is continuing to make calls, send emails, posting on social media platforms and even encouraging residents to post photos of themselves taking part in the census count on Instagram.

"This is something we can all do," she added. 

Geraldina Hernandez, parish secretary of Most Holy Redeemer Church in southwest Detroit, said census volunteers were supposed to pass out information following masses this upcoming Sunday and the one after. But those have all been canceled due to the virus, she said.

"As of right now, with our services being canceled for the weekends, I don't know how we're going to spread the word (about the census) to the community," said Hernandez, noting the church hosts three masses in Spanish on Sundays and usually has about 600 individuals who attend each. "It is important especially for Hispanic people. We want our voices to be heard."

The census in a statement on Sunday said it was adjusting operations as it continues to monitor the coronavirus and guidance of federal, state and local health authorities. It also has established an internal task force.

As of Sunday, more than 5 million had responded online to the 2020 Census. The planned completion date is July 31, however "that date can and will be adjusted if necessary as the situation evolves in order to achieve a complete and accurate count," the statement reads.

The census also noted that it was adjusting operations to make sure college students are counted. The majority have chosen to respond electronically, others chose drop-off/pick-up allowing student response via an Individual Census Questionnaire. The census is now contacting various schools to ask whether preferences would like to be changed in light of the virus, and asking schools to contact their students and remind them to respond, it noted. 

Kovari said the city is working to ensure college students, who will receive their forms at campus addresses, are still being counted even though they may temporarily have relocated based on closures sparked by the virus. 

"They would normally be counted as Detroiters," she said. "We're still hoping that they do that (the census), even though they may not be on campus at this time."

The census said its urging group housing administrators to choose response options that require less in-person contact.

Additionally, it is working with service providers at emergency and transitional shelters, soup kitchens and mobile food vans to adapt plans to count the populations they serve. The plan had been to conduct those interviews between March 30 and April 1. 

Census officials in recent days have noted it has a "significant contingency budget" to address costs of operational changes and will hire more workers, as needed, to "manage operations out of different offices or mail additional reminders or questionnaires to areas affected by an outbreak."

In Detroit, about 86% of households are slated to receive paper census forms in the mail as well as an accompanying letter with a code to complete the forms online. The remaining 14% received only an invitation with an internet code to fill it out, Kovari said. 

Kovari said Detroit's census team had plans to send canvassers out to areas where response rates are anticipated to be low. The prospect of resuming that plan will be revisited next month. Officials, she said, don't want to put census captains at risk.

"We're going to adapt. We're going to be flexible and keep working at it," she said. "We just frankly put too much of our heart and soul into this to give up on it now. We're not giving up."