SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A vice presidential debate will be held with an audience at the University of Utah in October, though it will be significantly smaller to accommodate social distancing amid a surge of coronavirus cases in Utah and elsewhere, officials said Wednesday.
The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates decided the gathering can be done safely and keeping it adds to the “good tension” in the room, co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. said.
“We view it as part of our educational function,” he said. “Safety is going to be the No. 1 issue.”
Presidential debates were hosted in an empty studio in the 1960s, but candidates over the years have appreciated having live audiences, he said.
The final debate of the Democratic primary was held in March without an audience, at a time when much of the country was under a stay-at-home order because of the pandemic. Republican-led Utah is among the states that have largely re-opened since then that have seen a rise in coronavirus cases.
The commission and organizers in Salt Lake City have been working closely with health experts and local authorities to hold the event with as little risk of spreading the disease as possible, Fahrenkopf said. The audience is typically about 900 people, but it is expected to be less than 200 instead.
Under current coronavirus restrictions in Salt Lake City, gatherings of more than 20 people are allowed if organizers establish a 6-foot distance between household groups.
The media corps will also be scaled back to about 250 people and housed in ventilated tent outside the venue on the Salt Lake City campus. Other events, like watch parties and media interviews, will also be held more carefully and quietly.
The Oct. 7 event is the only vice presidential debate organized by the commission, which has put together all general election debates since 1988. It is expected to feature Vice President Mike Pence and the as-yet-unannounced running mate of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
There will also be three presidential debates.
The University of Michigan had been scheduled to host a presidential debate Oct. 15, but it backed out last month. President Mark Schlissel cited the “scale and complexity” of work needed to make the campus safe for students in the fall. It’s set to take place in Miami instead.
The University of Utah is doing a hybrid approach of online and in-person classes this fall. The debate will happen during the university’s fall break, though classes are expected to continue online at least.
“We will not have a lot of students on campus,” said Jason Perry, with the university’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
The University of Notre Dame in Indiana will host a presidential debate Sept. 29, and the third one will be at Belmont University in Tennessee Oct. 22.