Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Monday night announced a “target date” of Oct. 5 to finish the 2020 Census count, just days after a federal judge blocked the government from ending it this week.

The surprise announcement came in the form of a tweet from the Census Bureau, just as a case management hearing on the case was getting underway in San Jose. The tweet was followed by a news release on the bureau’s website.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh had ruled last week that the government had not given a good reason for changing the deadline from Oct. 31, which the bureau had been planning on for several months, to Sept. 30.

Koh’s preliminary injunction had blocked the bureau from stopping on the earlier date. In her ruling, she agreed with the National Urban League and a group of counties, cities, advocacy groups and individuals that had brought the suit, saying a truncated schedule would irreparably harm communities that might be undercounted. The government on Friday filed a notice that it would appeal Koh’s order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

At the hearing Monday, Koh ordered government lawyers to produce by 1 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday documents related to the decision to set Oct. 5 as a target date for wrapping up self-
response and field enumerations. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. Eastern.

Data from the decennial census is used to determine $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding, and for congressional apportionment and state redistricting.

Over the weekend, an enumerator in Texas contacted the court, saying census employees there were being instructed to wrap up operations by Sept. 30 despite the ruling. A Census Bureau spokesperson on Monday said the bureau was investigating the report.

Enumerators from around the country have contacted news outlets with similar reports.

“I just received a text message on my Census smartphone at 3:06 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time from the Everett WA Area Census Office to the effect that all enumerations of cases were to cease as of ‘right now,’ ” one enumerator in Washington state wrote Monday in an email to The Washington Post.

The enumerator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job, said a similar voice mail had come from a field supervisor on Friday, after the preliminary injunction was issued. “I still have active cases, and was preparing to go out in the field,” the enumerator said.

Another enumerator in Maryland who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that their future job prospects could be threatened said in an email Monday night that “Orders came down to Enumerators in our area to do whatever we have to do to finish each non-responder case any way we can with the deadline of midnight, September 30. It seems that over the weekend, there was a reorganization, and the new boss wants it done NOW! That includes going through people’s mailboxes, checking Amazon packages, asking neighbors, asking Post Office personnel, WHATEVER.

“If you can’t be sure, make a guess, then call the supervisor, who will follow up and make a guess. This goes against what my Enumerator training advised. I was told to never look in mailboxes, peek in windows, or make any assumptions.”

The battle over the census end date comes after the government had initially said that because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic it needed until Oct. 31 to finish the count. It also requested that Congress approve a four-month delay in the statutory deadline for delivering the data for apportionment, from Dec. 31 to April 30.

The House approved the date change in its relief bill, but the Senate had not yet done so when early last month the government abruptly changed the count’s end date to Sept. 30 and said the data would be delivered by the end of December, while President Trump would still be in office regardless of the election outcome.

The reversal came days after Trump said the government should exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted for Congressional representation, in a memo that sparked several lawsuits. Last week a three-judge panel blocked that, and the government appealed to the Supreme Court.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is arguing the case in California, said, “At the end of the day we will prevail. The bureau has yet to provide a rationale that establishes that ending the response period early will produce an accurate census.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert who is on both the Connecticut and Stamford Complete Count committees and advises several cities throughout the country on census operations, said, “The confusion over when counting operations will end is making it difficult for hundreds of thousands of census ‘partners’ to plan final get-out-the-count activities . . . The constantly shifting plans and clear concern about the consequences for census accuracy already are undermining confidence in the results, even before there are any final numbers.”