South Coast counting to do
The orange on the map signifies significantly less of the population has responded to the U.S. Census on the South Coast. There are a number of reasons for the disparity with the rest of the county. Map courtesy San Mateo County

San Mateo County remains the best-counted county in California in the 2020 U.S. Census, but with less than two weeks left, many South Coast residents remain uncounted. And because of federal decisionmaking, they’re unlikely to see enumerators at their door before the Sept. 30 deadline.

As of Tuesday, San Mateo County reported a 78 percent response rate, but those numbers aren’t consistent throughout the county or even the Coastside. Half Moon Bay is reporting an 80 percent response rate with the Midcoast at 72 percent, while Pescadero and nearby unincorporated areas of La Honda and Loma Mar are at just 50 percent.

County Manager Mike Callagy said the South Coast was already considered a hard to reach rural area, which was only made more difficult to count by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also working against the region was the CZU August Lightning Complex fire, which displaced thousands of residents and still has some shut out of their homes.

But another factor is at play, making it unlikely San Mateo County and the South Coast’s numbers will increase in the next two weeks. County Communications Outreach Specialist Melissa Vergara said all but 250 of the 2,000 enumerators trained and deployed in the county were pulled to other jurisdictions showing lower numbers. Vergara said the decision came from the U.S. Census Bureau staff, and that the county does not have independent control over enumerators. Vergara said census staff are rehiring up to 400 local enumerators for the final push, but it’s not clear yet how many will be assigned to San Mateo County.

Now, Vergara and Callagy said, the county is relying more fully on community organizations like Puente de la Costa Sur to help get the word out. Callagy said the redirection of resources is a huge loss to the time and resources the county put into training them. Once enumerators leave, it can be hard to get them back.

“It seems like we're being penalized for being a performer and a leader,” Callagy said. “Now we’re at a disadvantage because the numerators have been pulled.”

Half Moon Bay resident Marilyn Johnson is one local census worker who, after knocking on doors on the Coastside and peninsula all summer, was asked to relocate. She said she was reassigned to Reno or Santa Rosa, but she wasn’t able to drop her work and family responsibilities on the coast to work 40-hour weeks out of the area.

For the most part, Johnson said, the people she’s talked to have been welcoming, especially once she got the chance to explain that an accurate census count would bring resources to their community and that their personal information wouldn’t be shared or used against them. But during a pandemic, she said, she was careful to be respectful of peoples’ space. And after wildfires broke out nearby, spending all day outside in the smoky air wasn’t an option.

Johnson said she was scheduled to go door to door in the South Coast the day the CZU fire began smoldering in the Butano area — but after hearing about potential evacuations, called her supervisor to cancel.

“It was not the time to be doing the census down there,” Johnson said.

Callagy said that enumerators still assigned to the area will be doing a final push at the end of the month, targeting the lowest response areas. Although enumerators haven’t been going door to door in the South Coast due to the ongoing wildfire, Vergara said, the county has been tapping local partners like Puente and the Coastside Farmers Market to help increase the count. Callagy said the county has even used COVID-19 testing as an opportunity to reach hard-to-count areas like around Pescadero.

“But it’s certainly not enough,” Callagy said. “There are a lot of people who were displaced, and we’re really more concerned about the residences they’ve lost, their livestock, and things like that right now. It’s just a very difficult time, given COVID and the wildfires, to conduct the census.”

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