Forgive us if we are less than thrilled that dozens of people will be together at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center this week receiving training to conduct the U.S. census.
Yes, completing an accurate census is essential so New Mexico receives the federal dollars and representation it deserves. With so many rural and tribal residents, not to mention undocumented immigrants in cities, the population of New Mexico tends to be undercounted in a census. Some 43 percent of the state is included in the “hard-to-count” category, according to census officials. That costs New Mexico important federal dollars.
Each person missed in Santa Fe costs around $3,700 a year — money that adds up over the decade between census counts. Taken across the state of New Mexico, government officials figure just a 1 percent undercount could mean a loss of up to $780 million a year.
So we do understand that training and swearing in census workers are crucial, even during a time of pandemic. However, having that many people in one place is troubling. The more we know about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the more we understand that larger numbers of people in enclosed spaces are more likely to transmit the disease.
The last thing New Mexico needs is a super-spreader event resulting from census training, whether sessions in Santa Fe or elsewhere. The trainings are exempt from the state public health order ban on public gatherings, but that’s all the more reason to take extra precautions. Once trained, these census workers will be going door to door to find people who have not filled out their census forms.
Tourism Director Randy Randall, speaking at a city of Santa Fe budget hearing, said he sees the training as the opportunity for his team to test COVID-safe practices. If the training sessions work — he expects three, with 200 to 250 people in each — Randall sees the possibility of meetings beginning again at the convention center. It could host smaller gatherings, the sorts of things that normally would happen at hotels. Call us skeptical.
For the census training, participants will be distanced — some 36 square feet per person — and wear masks and be given personal hand sanitizer. The groups should take frequent breaks as well, since length of time together is thought to be a contributing factor to the spread of the virus.
The courtyard at the convention center, which is outside, could be a place for some of the training, too. Everyone involved needs to do everything possible to ensure the training doesn’t make people sick and spread the virus.
Once the training is completed and workers are sworn in, participants should take a COVID-19 test so they know they are virus-free as they go out to make their counts. These should be quick-turnaround tests, not those that take days to receive results.
In a world where COVID-19 remains out of control, essential actions — such as conducting the census — could spread the virus. That’s the reality. Like so much of life during a pandemic, we must take care of necessary business while causing as little harm as humanly possible. It’s the new normal — that delicate balance of competing interests until a safe, effective vaccine is widely available.