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US census stirs uncertainty for those displaced by virus

College student Jake Mershon poses in front of his parents home Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Roswell Ga. Mershon, who just finished his sophomore year at Florida State University in Tallahassee, moved back in with his mother, her fiance and his sister in Atlanta after on-campus classes shut down in mid-March. His mother included him on the census form for her household, and neither Mershon nor his three other roommates filled out a questionnaire for their Tallahassee apartment. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
College student Jake Mershon poses in front of his parents home Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Roswell Ga. Mershon, who just finished his sophomore year at Florida State University in Tallahassee, moved back in with his mother, her fiance and his sister in Atlanta after on-campus classes shut down in mid-March. His mother included him on the census form for her household, and neither Mershon nor his three other roommates filled out a questionnaire for their Tallahassee apartment. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ORLANDO, Fla. – It's not meant to be a trick question, but many filling out their 2020 U.S. census form struggle to answer: How many people were staying at your home on April 1?

The pandemic has fostered sudden, unexpected dislocation, making a typically easy question confusing for the newly displaced.

Some people living in coronavirus hot spots fled their homes or were hospitalized. Students living off-campus moved in with their parents once universities closed. Travelers got stuck far from home because of health concerns.

Fran Kunitz left St. Louis to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Fort Myers, Florida, in mid-March. She was supposed to fly back on April 1 but nixed those plans. She has a weak immune system and asthma and didn't want to risk catching the virus on a flight.

Census Bureau guidance puts her in St. Louis, so when she fills out her form, she’ll have to ignore the part about where she was on April 1 — the date that determines where people are counted once a decade.

“I'm anxious to go home, but everyone tells me not to," Kunitz said recently from Florida.

The displacement is especially worrisome in New York City, which has been the epicenter of the nation's coronavirus outbreak.

It's leading to low response rates in wealthy enclaves of the Upper East Side and midtown Manhattan where many residents have left for the Hamptons, Florida or elsewhere. Some believe they need the census ID number that was mailed to them to fill out the form online, but that's not necessary, said Julie Menin, director of NYC Census 2020.