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Coronavirus concerns emerge around debates

The Hill logo The Hill 8/7/2020 Julia Manchester
Joe Biden, Donald Trump are posing for a picture: Coronavirus concerns emerge around debates © Getty Images Coronavirus concerns emerge around debates

Coronavirus concerns, which have already upended plans for the 2020 conventions, are starting to surface around the scheduled debates between President Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

To lower the risk of spreading COVID-19, health experts are advising changes ranging from taking the events exclusively online to mandating that the participants wear masks, though at least one candidate is champing at the bit to get to the debate stage.

Citing an expected increase in early and mail-in voting, the Trump campaign had requested moving up the first of the three scheduled events - or else scheduling more of them - but the Commission on Presidential Debates rejected that request on Thursday.

"While more people will likely vote by mail in 2020, the debate schedule has been and will be highly publicized. Any voter who wishes to watch one or more debates before voting will be well aware of that opportunity," the commission wrote in a letter to Trump's team, later adding that it "has been and remains highly focused on the possible impact of the pandemic on the debates."

The first forum, set for Sept. 29, was moved last week from the University of Notre Dame to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Case Western officials said the school's affiliation with the Cleveland Clinic will make hosting the debate more feasible during a pandemic.

"The things that you would expect we're considering obviously around masking, hand sanitizing, screening people, temperature checking, social distancing," said Jim Merlino, the chief clinical transformation officer at the Cleveland Clinic. "All of those things are in consideration as we look to structure what we're calling the COVID safety response."

Merlino, who, along with the Commission on Presidential Debates, is working with a team of experts in preparation for next month's forum, said planning is still in its early stages, but that voters should expect a very different experience.

"The [debates] from today are going to look a lot different from yesteryear's," Merlino said. "We're all used to seeing an auditorium watching the candidates debate for president or vice president. You're not going to see that today because we have to take into account precautions so that we can keep people safe."

The subsequent presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 27 in Nashville. The Oct. 15 forum, originally set to be held at the University of Michigan, was also moved over concerns about the coronavirus.

The vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.

The presidential forums will not be the first debates of the COVID-19 era.

The final Democratic primary debate between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on March 15 was moved from Arizona to CNN's Washington studios with no audience present and the moderators practicing social distancing.

The two men bumped elbows instead of the traditional handshake.

But the U.S. coronavirus picture has changed dramatically since the spring, both in terms of the severity of the outbreak and what is known about COVID-19.

"When you think about the principals that we need to do to keep people safe - social distancing, segmenting people, putting protections in place like masking and screening, those will be applied to all of the participants," Merlino said. "And when I say participants, I'm not just talking about candidates and their teams, but all of the people that come together around the debate as well."

There is also the question of Trump and Biden's respective ages - 74 and 77 - putting them in the high-risk category for the coronavirus.

Some health experts have even floated the idea of virtual debates in an effort to avoid crowds from the campaigns, press and supporters.

"I think the safest way to do this, and I hate to say it, but leveraging telecommunications," said physician Abdul El-Sayed, a CNN contributor who also served on the Biden-Sanders unity task force. "You're talking about two people who are debating for the presidency of the United States and the risks that anyone of them contracts this disease would be extremely consequential to the future of the country."

Other experts say shortening the duration of the debates, currently slated for 90 minutes each, would help combat the risk of exposure, in addition to requiring everyone, including Trump and Biden, to wear masks at all times.

"The duration of the exposure can be minimized for instance by having a shortened time rather than the usual debate time that has been done in the past," said Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

"I would really encourage people speaking through a mask," she continued. "It really defeats the purpose of a mask if you take it off before you're about to speak. So you may have to project your voice a little bit, you may have to articulate a little bit better, but it is safer doing it with a mask on than without a mask on."

Biden, who would become the oldest president ever sworn in if elected in November, shifted to an almost entirely digital campaign as the coronavirus swept through the U.S. He announced on Wednesday that he will not be traveling to Milwaukee to accept his party's nomination, accepting it in his home state of Delaware instead.

It is not yet clear where Trump will accept the Republican nomination, but he said on Wednesday he was considering accepting it from the White House.

Trump's allies see him sharing the stage with the former vice president as a valuable opportunity to make his case for four more years and would strongly oppose any attempt to shift to virtual events.

"We're already seeing the liberal left, the liberal media trying to create trap doors for Joe Biden to escape his commitment and obligations to debate Donald Trump on a debate stage in front of the American people," Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in an interview with "Fox & Friends" on Monday. "We want more debates."

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, wrote to the Commission on Presidential Debates on Thursday saying the president's campaign is "disappointed" the debates can't be moved up or increased in number, but that it would maintain pressure on Biden "to agree that Americans must see an in-person comparison of the records, visions, and vitality of the two candidates for president before voting begins."

Trump is trailing Biden in both national and most swing-state polls with less than three months before Election Day, and he sees the debates as an opportunity to turn the tide.

"As a rule, the greatest opportunities to move voters at the tail of a campaign are the conventions and debates," said Democratic strategist Michael Gordon, principal at Group Gordon. "They want to try and shake things up and get some momentum through a debate."

The Trump campaign has signaled its desire to take advantage of what many have called past lackluster debate performances from the former vice president, who has a history of verbal gaffes.

"There are enormously low expectations for Joe Biden in terms of how he will perform in a debate, and the Republicans are even fanning the flames of low expectations for Joe Biden," Gordon said. "If [Biden] shows up and is clear-headed, but doesn't score a home run, he can still have a very successful debate."

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