Fort Payne Mayor Larry Chesser said he is concerned about the impact of social distancing on the 2020 Census, as well as a decline in sales tax revenues resulting from the months-long coronavirus shutdown. The silver lining is that it could have been far worse.
“[Sales tax receipts are] slower than this time last year, but not drastically lower. We expected it to go through the bottom,” Chesser said. “Tourism dollars are down 40%, but our sales tax has done much better than we anticipated. Now, the longer this goes on, it might make a difference.”
In mid-March, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) issued public health orders prohibiting gatherings of 25 or more people. Restaurants were limited to take-out or delivery orders. On March 27, “non-essential” businesses were ordered closed effective until April 17. These included entertainment venues, athletic facilities, close-contact service providers and retail stores. Most have reopened in the last month, but COVID-19 cases are growing.
The federal government passed the CARES Act to keep the U.S. economy from collapsing and prevent mass evictions while workplaces have remained closed due to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the country marked a 50-year unemployment low in February, with just 3.5% of Americans unemployed. Millions abruptly lost their jobs, with restaurants, bars, the travel industry and retail being the hardest hit sectors. Although many of these are expected to be temporary, economists warn recovery is not expected for many months, or even years.
“I’m sure the stimulus money that was put out there was spent pretty good. We generated sales tax on families spending that $2,400. People who are unemployed are also getting money, but that’s going to run out. We’re adding trillions of dollars of [national] debt, but nobody seems to be concerned about it,” Chesser said.
The loss of money to pay for public services also drives concerns about the pandemic affecting the 2020 Census count. Funding is allotted based on the number of individuals counted in a given area, thus affecting federal funding for programs and infrastructure. Slowed population growth puts Alabama in danger of losing representation in Congress. The state had nine seats in the 1940s, losing one after the 1960 census and another after 1980’s count.
According to statistics from 2020census.gov, DeKalb County has a self-response rate of 50%, compared to 60% statewide. Across North Alabama, only Cherokee County has a lower response rate of 44%. Fort Payne’s response rate is 61%, with 32% self-responding via the internet.
“I’m afraid we’ve going to lose a congressional seat to California, and we might possibly lose two Congressional seats,” Chesser said. “We weren’t going to do well under normal circumstances. You can’t get people to do stuff. The last thing part [of the Census count process is] going out and doing these home visits. Unless they extend the time until next year sometime, we’re going to lose out.”
Participation in the census can help Alabamians take a stand to protect valuable resources, including hospitals, police and fire departments, schools and roads and bridges.
More than 90 million households have responded to the 2020 Census, with over four in five households doing so online. People can still respond on their own online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a census taker. All census takers have been trained on social distancing protocols, and will be issued Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and will follow local guidelines for their use, according to the Census bureau website.
Starting August 11, most census takers will begin interviewing households that have yet to respond to the 2020 Census and conclude work no later than October 31. Workers will be busy counting people staying at campgrounds, RV parks, marinas and hotels, as well as those who failed to complete the Census online earlier this year. It’s not too late to complete the 2020 Census by phone, mail or online. Visit my2020census.gov to begin.
The Alabama League of Municipalities has asked city clerks, treasurers and chief financial officers to share plans to adjust their year-to-date budget affecting capital projects, personnel and public services. AlaLM also wants to know if municipalities have delayed or canceled any major purchases because of lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic. The information will be used to advocate for replacement stimulus funds from the federal government.