SYRACUSE — Lillian Wood spent months knocking on doors in city neighborhoods and along country roads lined with almond and olive trees. She toted the Book of Mormon and cultivated her own faith as she shared the gospel across Northern California.
That changed last week when a statewide lockdown prevented the Syracuse native from venturing out, and again in following days when Wood and thousands of her fellow Latter-day Saint missionaries learned they would be sent home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“You only go on a mission once,” Wood recalls thinking late Sunday night, when she got word that she would fly home to Utah the next morning. But by the time she strapped on a surgical mask and boarded a plane in Sacramento, she had quit sulking.
“I knew this is what needed to happen,” she said.
Now the timing of Wood’s return could play a role in the funding of Utah’s roads, schools, health care system and its congressional representation as the 2020 census gets underway in her home state of 3.1 million.
Utahns in the proselytizing force of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long been missed in the once-a decade count. But this year’s tally is different as about 12,000 overseas missionaries — out of a total 67,000 worldwide — return home to the Beehive State.
Elders with fewer than six months and sisters with fewer than three months of service remaining are set to be released, while others will be reassigned within the United States. Still more are coming home from other states if they have medical conditions like Wood, who has asthma.
It’s one of several last-minute twists the COVID-19 illness has dealt Utah in the lead up to the decennial count, which kicks off April 1. And it could make tricky work for demographers trying to determine Utah’s headcount in future years when missionaries fan out across the globe once again.
“We’ll have that sort of ghost population back,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
“It’s a very interesting thing to contemplate, because we’ve always counted on this decennial count to help us get a better idea of the magnitude of the missionary migration.”
Perlich and her colleagues have long documented a “missionary cave” in their projections — a missing chunk of young men, who may serve a two-year mission at age 18; and women, who are permitted to embark on an 18-month mission at 19 years old. In certain parts of the state with higher rates of Latter-day Saints, their return this month will fill in that curve.
Utah leaders have tried in years past to include missionaries in the state’s census count.
Two years ago, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, brought a measure to include each overseas American — including Latter-day Saint missionaries — in the census. The bill followed similar, unsuccessful efforts in the courts.
In Provo, city leaders are bracing for an opposite outcome also linked to the coronavirus: an undercount.
That’s tied partly to the pending closure of the church’s Provo Missionary Training Center, which can hold as many as 3,700, although its population varies throughout the year. The center is reassigning Americans who were learning another language at the MTC to a different mission within the U.S.
Yet larger groups of students at BYU and Utah Valley University have also left their Provo apartments to return home to their families outside the city, said Provo City Councilwoman Shannon Ellsworth.
“It’s critical that Provo gets good data,” Ellsworth added, because the numbers determine federal funding and help leaders in the fast-growing city plan for more housing, public transit, and other resources. “However, in this time of coronavirus, we anticipate the census to be inaccurate because of the students who were sent home.”
Any uptick from missionaries coming home “won’t put a dent in the loss that we’re seeing from the student population,” Ellsworth said.
The shift has been weighing on her over the last several weeks.
“How could we reshape the census or redo it or extend it in order to get better data?” Ellsworth wondered aloud. “Because this will affect college towns across the nation, not just in Utah.”
She submitted the question in advance of a planned Wednesday conference call with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and said she was also wondering if the state might conduct its own count in 2022, a move that could help Utah and its local leaders better understand the effects of the pandemic.
“It would give a fast-growing area better data to make better decisions,” she said.
Perlich feels similarly.
“These migration patterns have been disrupted,” Perlich said. “I have a lot of concern about populations and usual residences being tracked appropriately.”
Wood is now in quarantine in Syracuse as a precaution.
While her family is planning to include her as a resident on their census form, they are researching whether her twin sister still serving a mission in Arizona should be included on the form ahead of her planned December return.
Wood said she’s a Utah resident for the foreseeable future. She plans to continue pursuing a degree in elementary education at Weber State University.
“Everything’s shut down, so it’s a little interesting,” she said. “I’ll just keep putting my faith in Heavenly Father and everything will be OK.”
• New population estimates released Wednesday from the U.S. Census Bureau show the Provo-Orem region ranked among the most rapidly growing metropolitan areas in the nation since the 2010 count. Provo-Orem came in at No. 9, with, a 23% growth rate that upped the population to about 648,200.
• In Utah’s southwestern corner, the St. George area — which includes all of Washington County — swelled even more rapidly, to a total of more than 177,500. It ranked fifth, with a 28.6% growth rate in the 10-year time frame.
• A relative population boom in Wasatch County — up 44.9% since 2010 — is not letting up. The largely rural county now home to more than 34,000 ranked third nationally for percentage growth.
And it’s coming a bit faster than the county expected, although most of the growth is centered in a new cluster of neighborhoods in the Heber Valley, said Wasatch County Planning Director Doug Smith.
“When you think about it, you’re 30 minutes from Provo-Orem, you’re 30 minutes from Salt Lake. You’re 15-20 minutes from Park City, you have 68%t public open space,” he said. “We’re successful because of our geography.”
• The Kem C. Gardner Institute analyzed the new census data, pinpointing the state’s overall growth at 52,400 new people — or 1.7%.