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Self-quarantined and looking for something to do? Take the census, state says

Online responses may be a ‘lifeline’ to getting an accurate count.

Massachusetts Secretary of the State William F. Galvin, at a Thursday morning press conference, said the coronavirus pandemic has complicated census taking.
Massachusetts Secretary of the State William F. Galvin, at a Thursday morning press conference, said the coronavirus pandemic has complicated census taking.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Hundreds are self-quarantining in Massachusetts. Colleges are sending students home. Social interaction is edging toward taboo.

That’s not the ideal environment to conduct a nationwide head count. So with the launch of the 2020 Census on Thursday, Secretary of State William F. Galvin made a plea to Massachusetts’s estimated 6.9 million residents to not only ensure they’re counted, but to do it online.

“I now see this is as a lifeline, as it were, given the circumstances we’re now under,” Galvin said Thursday of the option to respond to the 2020 Census electronically, though the old-fashioned avenues — by phone, by mail, or to a census taker face-to-face — all remain.

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The rapid spread of Covid-19 is already frustrating what Galvin and others say is a crucial, if complicated, process to count the state’s residents, including its large college student population and foreign-born residents.

The decision by a growing number of major public and private universities to shift to online or remote learning “couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Galvin, who fears the challenge of accurately counting off-campus students will only be more difficult.

The Census Bureau will mail notices to hundreds of millions of people nationwide over nine days starting Thursday. Though April 1 is considered “Census Day,” Galvin said the Census Bureau won’t send paper forms to most parts of the state until April 8.

Census takers will also go door-to-door in April, but Galvin said the growing concern of face-to-face interaction could hinder that process as well. “The best alternative to having people come to your door is to do it online,” he said.

Galvin said he was skeptical of the census’s online option, saying some people may be reluctant to post personal information through the website. Lawmakers have also questioned the Census Bureau’s ability to guard against hacking amid other cyber-security concerns raised by a Government Accountability Office report.

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But Galvin said he’s become something of a convert, saying he’s both “hopeful and skeptical” it can generate responses.

State officials say getting a complete count is crucial to keeping federal funds based on population flowing to Massachusetts. Should the state hit its estimate of 6.9 million residents, Galvin said, it’s also likely — but not guaranteed — to hold onto the nine congressional seats it currently has in the House of Representatives a decade after losing one following the last census.

“Am I concerned? Yes,” Galvin said of the possibility of losing another. “We would be foolish not to be concerned.”

While he’s touted the importance of the census, Galvin has come under criticism from nonprofit leaders and local officials who say he’s slow-walked nearly $4 million in grants the state promised to help spur awareness around the count.

Neither the nonprofits, nor state and town or city officials, perform the census counting themselves. But the money is designed to support outreach and education among what the state considered “historically underserved” populations, including immigrants, those who speak limited English, or low-income neighborhoods.

State law required that Galvin distribute at least half of the $2.9 million dedicated to nonprofits by mid-February, though as of Wednesday his office had issued roughly $658,000 and more than $1.2 million in identified grants still hadn’t been sent.

Galvin said Thursday the rest of those funds will be issued “hopefully by the end of the week." Nonprofit officials say they were key to building education campaigns before the census started, but Galvin defended waiting until the count began to begin issuing them.

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“It’s like paying people to be plow drivers in October when there’s no snow. You don’t do it,” he said.

Less clear is how he intends to handle $1 million designated for cities and towns. Galvin has said those checks will likely be issued in April, but which municipalities will receive them, and for how much, is still unclear.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout