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Commission Releases COVID-19 Precautions For Cleveland Presidential Debate

Updated: 4:15 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face off in the first presidential debate of 2020 in Cleveland Tuesday.

The debate was originally going to be held at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., but Notre Dame officials said debate logistics during the pandemic would make it too hard for students to attend and would diminish the educational value of hosting the debate.

So what makes it different in Cleveland?

The debate will be held near Cleveland Clinic’s main campus in the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion, 9501 Euclid Ave., in part of a joint health education campus with Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. Those organizations say it’s far enough away from the CWRU main campus to not impact students.

The area could seat at least 1,500 in non-pandemic times, but the space won’t be anywhere near that capacity.

There will be 80-90 people in the audience, according to Commission on Presidential Debates Co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. A quarter of the audience was chosen by the Trump campaign, a quarter was chosen by the Biden campaign, another quarter of the audience was invited by CWRU and the Cleveland Clinic, and the Commission chose the other quarter. 

Everyone in the audience has to take a COVID test and test negative. Audience members will wear masks and sit apart from each other.

The candidates and debate moderator will not wear masks.  

The Cleveland Clinic has also been working as health advisors to the presidential debate commission for all of this year’s debates, and the Clinic’s Dr. James Merlino said back in July that safety is the top priority.

"The level of contact is very different than what would have transpired at Notre Dame,” Merlino said.

The debate might not affect CWRU students as much as Notre Dame students, but it will affect Cleveland Clinic patients.


Roads are closed near the Cleveland Clinic's main campus in preparation for the debate. [Kelci Baker / special to ideastream]

There are a lot of road closures in the area. The Cleveland Clinic main campus is warning patients to think about setting up a virtual visit instead of coming in while debate security is in place. Certain entrances to the hospital and a parking garage are closed in preparation for the debate, which might make it harder for patients to get to appointments on time.

The heads of both political parties in Cuyahoga County are satisfied that safety is the priority.

“I personally am comfortable with the way they have decided to move forward,” said Cuyahoga County Democratic Chair Shontel Brown. “We are in a pandemic, so I know there have been measures put in place for many things and they can make it safe, but I think for the sake of the safety of others and the safety of the candidates, not having an audience might not be the worst thing in the world.”

And on this topic at least, Republican counterparts agree.

“I think the primary purpose of this debate is to generate a discussion, or the candidates to have a discussion for the voters, and I think that will be accomplished with the way it’s being set up,” Cuyahoga County Republican Chair Lisa Stickan said.

Reporters, including ideastream’s Nick Castele, will be in the media filing center at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel. Having a separate filing center for reporters is not that unusual for big political events, even without a pandemic. Even though media won’t be in the main debate area, the Clinic is requiring journalists to get a COVID-19 test to try to prevent spread.

The debate starts at 9 p.m. on Sept. 29 and will be 90 minutes long, with no interruptions for advertisements.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.