With COVID-19 spreading rapidly through Suffolk County and the latest measures by New York state severely limiting social interaction, civic leaders and nonprofit organizations across the East End working on community outreach for the 2020 Census are quickly switching their strategies and trying to think of ways to reach hard-to-count populations in the midst of a pandemic.

As of yesterday, county health officials reported 668 confirmed coronavirus cases throughout Suffolk and nine deaths, four in Greenport alone. On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to keep workers at home, banned social gatherings of any size and implemented drastic restrictions for vulnerable populations.

As a result of the rapidly rising outbreak, the Census Bureau announced on Wednesday it would suspend field operations until April 1, to “help protect the health and safety of the American public.”

During a typical census year, getting an accurate count—which determines about $675 billion in federal funding for the next 10 years, as well as the apportionment of congressional seats and electoral college votes— is hard enough, but this year, with the COVID-19 restrictions in place, it could prove extremely challenging.

On the East End of Long Island, an area where the U.S. Census Bureau had identified certain populations that may have been underrepresented in past surveys, they had partnered with local organizations to “get the word out” from “trusted voices,” and ensure everyone is counted.

However, “getting the word out” heavily depends on the type of in-person contact health authorities are discouraging, and that, paired with the historically undercount among particular communities, means fighting an uphill battle that just turned even steeper.

On the North Fork, the #NosotrosContamos Coalition — led by the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, SEPA Mujer, Eastern Suffolk BOCES, Catholic Charities, the Riverhead Anti Bias Task Force, Community Action Southold Town and Rural Migrant Ministry — was formed to specifically target the Latino community in the region, a population that they say is “often a marginalized community that gets lost in the census count.”

In order to achieve their goal of counting as many people as possible, the coalition had developed a plan that included distribution of informational flyers, recruiting volunteers for door-to-door canvassing, bilingual workshops, presentation at different community meetings, establishing help centers and celebrating Census Day, April 1, with two big parties in Riverhead and Greenport. With the new reality, none of that is possible anymore, and all events have been canceled or postponed “until further notice.“

“Our coalition’s outreach strategy was focused on meeting folks where they’re at, but with social distancing and quarantining on the forefront, we are taking this time to pause and rethink our approach,” said North Fork #NosotrosContamos Coalition coordinator Dena Spanos, who is also a Stony Brook University intern at North Fork Spanish Apostolate.

“There is a huge concern that this hurdle could make it even more unlikely for marginalized communities to respond to the census, so we are asking that all community members collectively remind one another of the importance of participating, especially because funding from the census goes to hospitals and health care,” Spanos added.

Paola Zúñiga, the outreach census coordinator at SEPA Mujer, said that even though everyone was trying to cope with the new social distancing rules, it was more important than ever to “raise awareness about the 2020 census.”

“The census is crucial to our community, so much depends on it, we have to step it up and reach everyone,” Zúñiga said. “The good news is that this year people can respond online or by phone, and that’s what we are trying to let people know: you don’t have to go out, you can respond on your phone or computer.”

As of March 20, 14.9% of Suffolk residents had self-responded, according to the Census Bureau, and the majority of the responses, about 13.6%, had been internet self-responses.

Zúñiga and Spanos said that the coalition was turning their efforts to promote the census through social media right now, and are thinking of utilizing television, radio and text messaging in the next few months to educate the community about the census and how to respond online or by phone.

“Most of us are stuck in our homes looking for things to do, so now is the best time to take 10 minutes of our day to respond,” Spanos said.

The Census Bureau has a deadline of July 31 to make sure that every person living in the United States is counted.

To respond to the census online go to: https://my2020census.gov/. To respond by phone call: 844-330-2020

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria