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Census goes on despite pandemic

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – The Census goes on despite a pandemic that has stymied personal interactions, since online and distance options are open so residents can be counted.

However, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has meant many changes in plans.

“It’s changing the dynamics of doing things,” the Rev. William Webster of Grace Presbyterian Church in Martins Ferry said.

He is chairing the Belmont County Census Committee. He and his fellow committee members especially felt the effects of isolation this past Wednesday, when county-wide Census events were scheduled to kick off.

“It was supposed to have been a celebration, and we were planning to do a celebration at different locations in the county,” he said. “Just as we were getting ready to do the planning, everything came to a stop.”

“April 1 is (National) Census Day, and this is a day that’s supposed to be highlighted by the Census. It’s a day we’re supposed to remember … fill out your Census card, put it in the mail. Call it in. Do it online,” Webster said. “But unfortunately, April 1 has been overshadowed.

“It only takes a few minutes. Then we get counted, and we get our fair share of the resources that are available, state and federally funded.”

Webster said he would have a clearer idea of where the county stands in 10 days to two weeks.

“And where our holes are that need to be addressed — what areas haven’t completed it. I’ll be able to track it then,” he said. “After (Wednesday) we’ll have an idea … we can go in and check how much has come in and where the numbers have come in the most, and where they haven’t.”

Webster said confidentiality is strict and they will know what percentage of houses in a given area have and have not responded, but not actual addresses.

He said Bellaire did not have a good participation rate in the 2010 Census, and the Bellaire Local School District had worked to get the message out this year until the pandemic resulted in school closures.

“Before everything shut down and we weren’t able to congregate places, I was getting a really good response talking to people, just walking around and meeting with people at different places,” Webster said. “They were assuring me they’d filled it out or had already done so.”

The county seat of St. Clairsville is also encouraging participation, since early estimates from the Census Bureau suggest it is close to losing city status and dipping below the 5,000-resident mark.

Planning and Zoning Director Tom Murphy said as of Monday, the city had a response from more than 50 percent of residential addresses.

On Thursday Roxanne Wallace, assistant regional census manager with the Philadelphia Region, said Belmont County’s response is 38 percent so far, with 56.2 percent in St. Clairsville.

Murphy said the pandemic has put a halt to the city’s intent to hand out flyers to visitors to the utility office and city building.

He said any resident with questions can contact him at 740-695-1953.

On March 28, the U.S. Census Bureau suspended 2020 Census field operations for two weeks, until April 15.

Wallace said between April 8 and April 16 the bureau will mail a paper questionnaire to households that have not responded.

“We’ve pushed back our timeline, and we continue to monitor the health and safety of our employees (that’s) our priority,” Wallace said. “We are adjusting our operations in fields where our workforce interacts directly with the public.”

She said they also will make efforts to obtain a count of people experiencing homelessness. This often involves visiting community organizations such as shelters and soup kitchens.

“We know and understand that’s not safe to do now, but it will be later,” she said.

In the interest of convenience, she advised all residents of the county to visit 2020.census.gov or call 844-330-2020 for more information.

“The Census is open and anyone can respond online,” she said. “It has never been easier to respond to the Census on your own without having to meet a Census taker. … This will reduce the number of Census takers we will need to send door-to-door.”

She said Census results influence legislative representation as well as funding for hospitals, schools and infrastructures as well as programs such as Head Start, Women Infants and Children, school lunch programs and others.

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