Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
As COVID-19 cases in New Mexico continue to rise, the U.S. Census Bureau has begun talks about holding events to officially swear in thousands of New Mexicans as employees of the bureau at the end of the month.
Convention centers are some of the locations being considered, officials with the centers told the Journal. The bureau has insisted the events will be safe.
The bureau is preparing for its nonresponse follow-up operation next month, in which thousands of census-takers go door-to-door. As part of the hiring process, incoming employees must swear a lifetime oath to protect responses to the census, and the oath must be taken in person. Meanwhile, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has ordered a ban on large gatherings.
Jose Garcia, general manager of the Albuquerque Convention Center, said he and the bureau have discussed plans to host thousands of employees at the convention center. The workers will be sworn in over a number of days.
“They’re not going to have 1,000 people here at once,” he said. “It’s going to be a much smaller fraction of that.”
Garcia said employees would practice social distancing and wear masks while in the convention center.
Similar plans have been discussed in Santa Fe. Randy Randall, Santa Fe’s director of tourism, said his office has held discussions with the bureau about hosting a swearing-in for employees concurrent with the Albuquerque event.
He also said he did not know how many employees would be sworn in.
“I’ve heard a number of a total of 2,000 people over a few days,” Randall said. “Definitely there wouldn’t be more than 200 at any gathering.”
Garcia and Randall said their community centers have not been officially selected, but that their sites could safely host employees if chosen.
“It’s just as safe as going to a grocery store, Home Depot or a restaurant,” Garcia said. “Probably safer.”
The state has occupancy restrictions on many businesses, including grocery stores, hardware stores and restaurants. Cases of COVID-19 have been spiking recently in New Mexico – along with many other states – with notable increases in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties.
Mercy Alarid, the bureau’s senior partnership specialist for New Mexico, said that thousands of New Mexicans from across the state will be sworn in at these events but that no sites have been confirmed.
But people familiar with the swearing-in told the Journal that bureau officials have all but confirmed the Albuquerque Convention Center as one of the sites.
She also declined to say which sites are still under consideration.
“We want to protect our employees,” Alarid said. “We don’t want to disclose anything that we’re doing to make sure that our employees are protected when we do this.”
Alarid did not specify how employees would be endangered by release of a list of potential host sites.
Alarid, Garcia and Randall told the Journal that the state government was aware of the proposed event and would allow it to take place during Lujan Grisham’s ban on large gatherings, which includes some exceptions.
However, Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, said in a written statement that the governor cannot control the actions of a federal agency such as the Census Bureau.
“The governor’s office is aware that the U.S. Census Bureau was hoping to hold training events in New Mexico,” she wrote.
The state has declined a similar request by the bureau to hold the swearing-in events on state property, Sackett said.
Time is running short for either convention center to prepare to host thousands of people over a few days at the end of July. Randall said he would need at least 10 days to get ready for such a large crowd during the pandemic.
“We’re right on the edge for when it would be the appropriate amount of planning time,” he said. “We need to move ahead soon.”
Once the swearing-in events are completed, workers will begin interviewing residents who have not responded to the census. The interview period runs from Aug. 11 to Oct. 31. How many workers the bureau has remains unclear.
Alarid said the Census Bureau has enough employees, but declined to provide a specific number.
“We do not share that with the media,” she said. “We just don’t. That’s internal information for us.”
New Mexico, home to a number of Native American communities and rural towns with nontraditional addresses, is considered one of the hardest states to count for the census.