Plans appear to be still moving forward for a vice presidential debate at the University of Utah on Wednesday, even as the future of the two remaining presidential debates is uncertain after President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus.
Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) will debate at Kingsbury Hall, Nancy Peery Marriott Auditorium, but there will be several more feet of distance between the candidates, CNN reported.
A spokesperson for the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsors the events, did not return a request for comment.
Shawn Wood, a spokesman for the University of Utah, said that they had not heard of plans to postpone the event. “The university is ready to host the debate no matter what,” he said.
Two other presidential debates, scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville, are uncertain given Trump’s diagnosis.
Tuesday’s first presidential debate at the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University has raised concerns over holding such a large event, especially one that is staged before an audience.
The Cleveland Clinic released a statement on Friday defending the protocols at the debate. They said that everyone permitted inside the debate hall tested negative for COVID-19 prior to entry.
“Individuals traveling with both candidates, including the candidates themselves, had been tested and tested negative by their respective campaigns,” the clinic said. “Based on what we know about the virus and the safety measures we had in place, we believe there is low risk of exposure to our guests.”
But Chris Wallace, who moderated the debate, said on Fox News’ Bill Hemmer Reports on Friday that Trump arrived too late to get a test by the clinic before the debate. He said that “there was an honor system when it came to the people that came into the hall from the two campaigns.”
Earlier, Wallace said that members of the Trump family, who were seated in the audience, violated the clinic’s rules by not wearing masks. He said that a health official from the Cleveland Clinic “came up to the first family when they were seated and offered them masks in case they didn’t have them and they were waved away. And people in the hall noticed that that they weren’t wearing masks and everybody else in the hall was wearing a mask.”
Eleven new cases of coronavirus were reported by the city of Cleveland that were linked to the debate, but the clinic said that they were involved in set up and logistics and none accessed the debate hall.
The University of Utah is planning a series of protocols for the vice presidential debate, including a requirement that everyone who has access to the security perimeter test negative, and that attendees wear masks, Wood said. An audience is still planned for the event.
Given the potential risks of exposure or of rules just not being followed, a question is whether a safer approach would be to scrap the audience altogether.
The first televised presidential debates in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, were done in TV studios. Earlier this year, as the coronavirus began forcing shutdowns and social distancing across the country, CNN moved its primary debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to its Washington studio. It was initially scheduled to take place in Phoenix, so the move meant that far fewer people needed to travel across the country.
Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, said via email that it would be “an easy call” for the commission to scrap the audience, “though I imagine they are waiting to see where things go before announcing any decisions.”
The second presidential debate is slated to be a town hall style format, with voters in the hall asking the questions. Schroeder suggested that the format “could still be salvaged with remote participation.”
“Especially at a time when millions of us have become used to interacting via Zoom, a virtual town hall of this sort would not strike the audience as strange,” he said.
That is contingent, of course, on the final two presidential debates happening at all.