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Social Distancing Measures For COVID-19 Upend Metro East Census Outreach Efforts

A sign in Belleville encouraging residents to respond to the census on March 24, 2020. The coronavirus has upended much of the local census outreach efforts. 03 24 2020
Eric Schmid | St Louis Public Radio
A sign in Belleville encouraging residents to respond to the census. The coronavirus has upended much of the local census outreach efforts.

BELLEVILLE — The actions Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker took to curb the spread of the coronavirus are having an impact on local organizations trying to ensure accurate census counts in the Metro East.

The orders to close schools and stay at home came at the height of many local outreach efforts only weeks before census day on April 1. 

“We were just booked solid with events,” said Lisa Mersinger, Madison County’s community development coordinator. “We just had to postpone them.”

The week after Pritzker closed schools was national Every Child Counts Day, she said.

“The Granite City, Venice, Madison and Alton school districts had events where they would try and get their parents in to complete the census,” Mersinger said.  

Elsewhere in the region, community organizers had been making inroads with historically hard-to-count populations.

“We were off to a really good start,” said Shannon Anderson, a program manager at Teens Against Killing Everywhere. “We touched several thousand people in East St. Louis.”

In-person events canceled

Both TAKE and Madison County Community Development received grant money from the state of Illinois that was designed to spur census participation. The money mostly went to programming or outreach that would touch harder-to-count populations throughout the state. In the Metro East, that meant a slew of in-person contact at events, libraries or other organizations. 

The rapid spread of COVID-19 cases has forced both Anderson and Mersinger to adjust their outreach strategies.

“Obviously we can’t hold any large events right now, which sucks, because we had some planned for early April and the end of March,” Anderson said. “Less door knocking, less questionnaire assistance, because, you know, we have to be socially distant — but we’re still trying to get the word out and complete the census.”  

The restriction on large gatherings, and movement in general, means much of census outreach has transitioned to anything that doesn’t require face to face.

“We still have outreach workers at places that are still open — gas stations, grocery stores, clinics, wherever we’re allowed — and that’s pretty much the best we can do,” Anderson said. “We have the support of East St. Louis and the surrounding community. It’s just reaching people who are now quarantined in their homes.” 

Getting creative

The rest of the outreach has shifted to tools like email blasts and social media posts. 

“It’s really hard because everything is shut down, except for essential services,” Mersinger said. “And there everyone's focus is, as it should be, on staying safe and well.” 

TAKE has enlisted the help of local East St. Louis-specific influencers, like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to spread the word online and even appear on billboards, Anderson said.

“We’ve picked major intersections and busy streets,” she said. “Some of our billboards have 10,000 impressions a day, just people going on highways, expressways.”

It’s too early to tell how the COVID-19 outbreak will impact response rates in the region. In total, about 30% of Illinois has responded to the census, according to the bureau’s tracker. And the bureau has extended the window for when people can respond to the survey into August. Mersinger said she hopes that extension is helpful.

“We were planning all along to engage the community well after Census Day on April 1,” Mersinger said. “I feel like that part hasn’t changed.”

Both Anderson and Mersinger are waiting for the strict distancing measures to lift so they can hold some of the events they had to postpone. Mersinger added residents can respond to the census now even if they haven’t received a letter from the bureau asking for a response.

“They can still fill the census out online without the information in the letter,” she said.

If that’s the case, residents will be asked to write down their address at the bottom of the form or indicate they don’t have one, Mersinger said.

You can respond to the census here: www.my2020census.gov 

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

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Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.