Census outreach efforts go digital in Orange County in response to pandemic

Residents wear masks while walking the Huntington Beach Pier in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Residents wear masks while walking the Huntington Beach Pier in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As COVID-19 continues to fasten its grip on Orange County, county and city staff are adjusting 2020 census outreach efforts and figuring out creative ways to reach underserved communities that have traditionally gone uncounted.

Saul Viramontes, Orange County’s head of Census 2020 special projects, said canvassing and event appearances have been replaced by digital and social advertising and influencer marketing and online call-to-action videos from local government officials.

Viramontes said the county is currently at a “good” response rate of 60.4%. Orange County had a 75% response rate in 2010.

But, Viramontes pointed out that just because the county is receiving a good response rate doesn’t mean that every community is being counted.

“There’s more people than your data might be telling you,” Viramontes said. “How do we know who is being underserved if we don’t know they are there at all?”

The county is using targeted messaging to connect with the populations that are traditionally undercounted in Orange County — communities of color, children under 5, the homeless and veterans. Although, the inability to use in-person messaging makes the task challenging.

“It’s 100% more difficult to get these hard-to-count people involved now after COVID,” Viramontes said. “We are looking for ways to engage with people but a lot of the ways usually involve an element of being outside.”

Known coronavirus cases now sit at 1,845 total infections, up 33 from Thursday. No deaths were reported Friday, leaving the total at 36. Testing, however, took a step up with 1,267 new tests given.

One method the county came up with is bus advertising in Spanish, Vietnamese and English. Viramontes said they are trying to reach every community in their own language through digital and social advertising. The county is also reaching out to ethnic media outlets and looking to advertise at ethnic grocery stores.

Local government officials will be recording call-to-action videos next week in various languages. These include videos in Vietnamese from county Supervisor Andrew Do; in Mandarin by Tim Cheng, co-chair of the Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center; in Cantonese from Angela Wang, former president of the Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center and in Tagalog from Joseph L. Joseph, president of the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce, among other videos from local officials.

The county is also planning to put census notification stickers on school lunchboxes that several school districts are providing to children of low-income families.

Viramontes said that, although the health crisis is “10 times” more important than the census, it is important to get an accurate count so that populations can be adequately represented in politics and the community. Although, he believes the virus has hindered the ability to get an accurate count.

“We are expecting to be less successful had COVID not happened,” Viramontes said.

Local governments do have more time to get their communities to respond as the U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that it’s currently working to extend the deadline until October to fill out the census.

Cities are also looking to get their communities to take part.

Huntington Beach spokesman Eric McCoy said the city’s census outreach has primarily been online. City personnel are encouraging people to respond to the census on Facebook and the city’s website. Several census-related videos are circulating on the city’s television channel, HBTV Channel 3.

McCoy said nearly 60% of the city has responded. Staff is currently researching ways to reach out to the hard-to-count areas in the city, including contacting apartment complex managers, schools and parent-teacher associations.

“While we are focused on the health and safety of our residents during this pandemic, we continue to conduct proactive outreach to our [Huntington Beach] community related to the census,” McCoy said.

Albert Ruiz, who’s guiding the census strategy for Costa Mesa, said the city has increased its online marketing presence through Facebook, Nextdoor, Twitter and Instagram. The city is also engaging households with mailing campaigns, including a letter penned by Mayor Katrina Foley requesting the community to fill out the census and notify others to do so as well.

The city also canceled an order for a mobile outreach kiosk with onsite support.

Costa Mesa has had a response rate of about 57% so far, with all but 3% of them being online responses. Ruiz said the city is poised to exceed its 2010 response rate of 68%, and the city expects to see a higher response rate from hard-to-count communities due to targeted outreach efforts.

Ruiz said the city is working with trusted community members to connect with hard-to-count populations, including Save Our Youth, a longstanding nonprofit that serves low-income youth. The city is also working with landlords since the eviction moratorium was approved.

With the pivot to digital messaging, there is some concern that certain communities may be left out.

To target seniors who may not be technologically-fluent enough to see the online messaging, Costa Mesa has also partnered with residential and care facilities. Many low-income workers are forced to continue working, so the city is partnering with digital marquis to post census information for people still commuting.

“There is a renewed sense of optimism, with everyone being so connected right now during these unprecedented times, there is a strong sense of community and taking care of one another,” Ruiz said. “We are looking at making the census an extension of that because, at the end of the day, everybody counts.”

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