debate organizers push ahead despite public health concerns


The vice-presidential contenders will similarly be situated about 12 feet apart on an indoor stage, an increase from the planned seven-foot separation. The change was made after Trump’s positive coronavirus test.

“Why put at risk the vice president and also his challenger?” asked Vin Gupta, an assistant professor of health metrics science at the University of Washington. “It just seems to be a silly and needless risk given what has happened in the last 48 hours with the president.”

He suggested relocating the venue outdoors or installing plexiglass between the debaters, advice echoed by Tara C. Smith, the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at Kent State University’s College of Public Health.

“I don’t understand why we are still having these in person. We could put them in separate rooms. Put it on Zoom,” she said. “Especially for the current vice president. We don’t know what is happening with the president.”

That medical caution has run headlong into a desire by both presidential campaigns and the independent Commission on Presidential Debates to return to something approaching a more typical final month of campaigning, as can be allowed by federal coronavirus guidelines.

“We are going forward as planned,” Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairman of the debate commission, said Sunday. “We haven’t heard from either candidate that they want to cancel.”

Former vice president Joe Biden, who tested negative for the virus again Sunday, plans to travel Monday to Florida for a visit to Hispanic neighborhoods and participate in a televised town hall in Miami, followed by a drive-in rally in Boca Raton. A trip to Arizona is planned for later in the week, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), is expected to resume a full travel schedule as well.

Trump’s campaign has also announced a restart of in-person campaigning by the president’s family and Vice President Pence after the debate Wednesday, even though several senior officials, including the president, his campaign manager, his personal assistant and three people involved in preparing him for the first debate have tested positive. Three other people who attended a White House event on Sept. 26, including two U.S. senators, have also tested positive.

The conviction of both campaigns that future campaigning is safe rests upon plans to adhere to federal guidelines, which call for using masks and maintaining social distancing of at least six feet. Both campaigns are seeking to avoid following separate federal guidelines that call for people who are directly exposed to the virus to self-isolate for 14 days, because the virus can take that long to manifest in symptoms or a positive test.

The Biden campaign maintains that Biden’s participation in the debate last week does not count as exposure or close contact, even though Trump probably had the virus days before the White House said he started to show symptoms on Thursday.

“According to CDC guidance, less than six feet away is dangerous. Vice President Biden was always more than six feet away from President Trump,” Biden adviser Symone Sanders said Sunday in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We have been adhering to public health guidance from the beginning of this onset of this pandemic.”

But the federal guidelines are not guarantees against transmission. Being indoors, speaking loudly and not wearing a mask are all known to increase the risk of transmission, even at distances beyond six feet. Biden and Trump did all of those last week.

Concern about spread of the virus beyond six feet has been growing for months. “There’s good enough data to say that aerosol transmission does occur,” Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading infectious-disease expert, said in late September. “Aerosol means the droplets don’t drop immediately. They hang around for a period of time.”

Nahid Bhadelia, the director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston University, said Biden at last week’s debate fell into “a gray area” with relatively low risk. He did not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition of exposure, she said, but his infection cannot be ruled out, despite recent negative tests.

Incubation periods can last as long as two weeks, she said, and the average length of time before the disease manifests is four to five days. “Nothing in public health is zero chance unless you weren’t at the event.”

Both Gupta and Smith also said there was a small risk that Biden had been infected by Trump and that it had not shown up in tests.

The Biden campaign, which has prided itself on its caution when it comes to the coronavirus, rejected the idea that its decision to have Biden travel and participate in more in-person debates showed a lack of concern.

“Our campaign has taken covid-19 extremely seriously from the outset and we will continue to responsibly and safely make our case about how to overcome this pandemic,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said. “We implement social distancing, mask-wearing, staff and volunteer training and other best practices in all our campaign efforts.”

But even those measures are not foolproof. During a train trip across Ohio and Pennsylvania on Wednesday, after the debate, Biden allowed his mask to slip down under his nose when meeting with two supporters in a cafe car. One of the supporters was having difficulty hearing Biden with the mask on, so the vice president pulled it down completely for at least several minutes as he was talking.

The Trump campaign is similarly bullish about a quick return to the campaign trail. In an Instagram message posted over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, said he was waiting to get tested again on Tuesday before heading back on the road again. That would mark only a week after he sat without a mask in the front row of the debate in Ohio.

Campaign manager Bill Stepien, who is self-quarantining with the virus, announced on Saturday the start of “Operation MAGA,” an all-hands effort to return the campaign to “full speed” on Wednesday.

“Vice President Pence, the first family, our coalitions and our grass roots supporters will be out in full force to show the real enthusiasm behind the president’s reelection and show we are working as hard as he always does,” Stepien said in an announcement of the plan.

The campaign does temperature checks and distributes masks for its major events, but Trump’s staff has historically not enforced mask-wearing, even at indoor venues. The president and his aides have also mocked the accessory, a tactic that has continued since Trump’s diagnosis.

“I’d say that with regard to Joe Biden, I think too often he’s used the mask as a prop,” Trump adviser Jason Miller said Sunday during an appearance on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “A mask is very important, but even if he’s — he could be 20, 30 feet away from the nearest person and still have the mask on.”

A Trump adviser who spoke with the president this weekend said he still wanted to participate in the debates and hoped he could return to in-person campaign events.

Farhenkopf said Sunday that no final decisions had been made about the final two presidential debates, scheduled for Oct. 15 and 22, which are both contingent on Trump’s recovery. The Cleveland Clinic has been hired to consult on health protocols for all events.

The Cleveland Clinic, which also hosted the first presidential debate, has argued that safety measures at Tuesday’s event were sufficient. “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,” the clinic said in a press statement.

But the decision to organize an in-person debate did have clear health ramifications. Ohio health officials announced than 11 people who had tested positive for covid-19 could be traced to pre-debate planning and set up. Cleveland Clinic officials said none of them had access to the debate hall.

The debate itself was indoors, with a mask mandate that was ignored by members of Trump’s family and entourage who sat near the stage.

Fahrenkopf said that would be fixed for future meetings.

“It’s very, very clear that the rule is going to be: Everyone who enters the hall for the remaining three debates is going to have to have a mask on and they’re going to have to keep them on,” Fahrenkopf said. “If they don’t keep them on, they are going to be asked to leave the debate hall.”

Josh Dawsey and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

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