Everyone Counts (Even In a Pandemic)

Getting an accurate count for our region is crucial—especially in uncertain times
A masked volunteer holds up a card reading "We're Counting on You," encouraging people to complete the 2020 US Census. The volunteer is wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A volunteer from MSW Projects—a not-for-profit organization that provides vital services for senior citizens in Marshall and Stark counties—packs meals for seniors and includes a reminder to complete the US Census (TCRPC)

Through a worldwide pandemic, 2020 Census efforts have soldiered on. While businesses, cities and entire states had to shut down for months, one thing that did not stop was the nationwide population count. Since the census questionnaire was, and continues to be, available online (my2020census.gov) and by phone, citizens across the region can fill it out remotely. However, that is not to say the planning process was unaffected.

Before the global pandemic and statewide shutdown, Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC) and numerous local and regional partners had planned in-person census events and questionnaire assistance activities. This whole process had to be quickly restructured. The census questionnaire is now available until Halloween for those who have not yet filled it out—though it is best to complete it as soon as possible.

Enumeration Through Innovation

“There’s no exact playbook for marketing like this in a pandemic,” says Kate Larson, digital account executive at DCC Marketing, the agency that provided the eye-catching census campaign artwork seen around the region. “It’s going to continue to be a moving target because so many things are different, and things change so quickly.” In this case, these changes called for a drastic pivot in marketing strategy.

Luckily, the pandemic inspired innovation in organizations and governments around the region. Alyssa Cooper, community planner for the McLean County Regional Planning Commission (MCRPC), has been collaborating with TCRPC and DCC since late last year on census-related activities and planning. “Our Complete Count Committee in McLean County has been working for several months now on a comprehensive range of outreach strategies,” Cooper explains. On April 1, “the ISU marketing department worked with the student government association and… made a video about why the census is important and why other students should be filling it out.”

Census-related virtual events, radio spots and a heavy social media presence have taken the place of in-person marketing efforts. Public-private partnerships have widened the reach further, as MCRPC collaborated with Beer Nuts to distribute census information with each virtual sale. “[Beer Nuts] has been doing a lot of online orders, so we gave them a stack of a few hundred flyers, and they’ve been stuffing one in each of their outgoing orders,” says Cooper.

Connecting with Local COVID Efforts

Instead of trying to plan despite the pandemic, local partners have found a way to leverage this challenging situation in their favor. According to Ty Livingston, East Peoria’s director of planning and community development, East Peoria schools and food pantries are including census materials in meal packages. “The schools are connecting with over 550 families a week in distribution, and the food pantry has a regular Monday distribution point that’s been augmented by some of the additional food distribution coming from our restaurant wholesaler/distributor.

“That’s been a real boon to be able to make that connection and to get information out,” Livingston continues. Several other communities have been doing the same, including entities in Peoria, Marshall, Stark and McLean counties.

Public transportation has been running throughout the pandemic, providing the vital service of taking people where they need to go. Beginning in March, CityLink buses began featuring prominent census ads displaying the #CareAboutTheCount hashtag on both the vehicles’ interior and exterior. “Our buses get great coverage in Peoria, but also in West Peoria, Peoria Heights, Pekin—you’re getting the word out in the entire service area,” explains Emily Watson, CityLink’s director of marketing and public relations. Phrases such as “I value healthcare options” and “I value childcare access” adorn the buses. “They’re very eye-catching,” she adds.

Census Response Rates

Since this year’s census data is being gathered and tabulated mostly online, response rates are available through the U.S. Census Bureau website, updated daily to show the percentage of the population who have filled out their forms so far. For several months, Illinois has been in the top ten states nationwide for response rates, while Tazewell and Woodford counties have appeared among the top ten counties in the state.

“It’s always exciting to be part of something that goes beyond business as usual and helps the community at large,” Larson says. “We have a lot to be proud of. Not just in our own marketing campaign… but as a whole state.”

Visit 2020census.gov to learn more. Funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services. The contents are solely the responsibility of the author.

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 edition of Peoria Magazine.

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