Crowds out, masks in: Debating in the age of the coronavirus

Associated Press
A camera operator checks his watch ahead of the first presidential debate between Republican candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — Crowds and pageantry are out. COVID-19 tests and masks are in.

Presidential debates are typically some of the most exciting nights of the campaign season, drawing a crowd of thousands of staffers, media and guests.

But this year, as with almost everything else, things are very, very different, with a long list of precautions in place.

Instead of the usual auditorium setting, the debate is being hosted by the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University in the 27,000-square-foot (2,500-square-meter) atrium of the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion on the clinic's Health Education Campus. Notre Dame, the original debate host, withdrew because of the pandemic.

The atrium, with its skylighted roof, has been turned into a makeshift debate hall with a stage and red carpeting. While chairs are mostly placed right next to one another, the rows have been spaced out and signs have been placed on two of every three chairs that read, "Thank you for not sitting here in observance of social distancing." That leaves room for about 100 people, all of whom will have been tested for the virus and will be required to wear surgical masks.

President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden won't have to wear masks themselves, though. 

Each candidate's campaign was given 20 tickets to hand out to guests, said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Beyond those watching the televised debates from afar, the faceoffs typically draw several thousand people, including guests, sponsors, donors and the national and international media, taking on the feel of a festival. There's usually a huge media filing center and food tents — even a beer garden. And after the debate, supporters of each candidate typically file into the press center, creating a "spin room" where they post-game the main event.

While there is a media filing center in Cleveland in a ballroom near the venue, the atmosphere felt far from buzzy Tuesday afternoon, with few reporters in place. And only those wearing gray wristbands indicating they had tested negative for the virus were allowed inside.

Outside, there were no large demonstrations, just security officials blocking off streets around the building before the candidates' arrivals and helicopters buzzing overhead.

One man was spotted driving around the venue in a pickup truck that had a papier-mache model of Trump's head in a box, along with pro-Biden flags and signs that read, "203,000 DEAD" of COVID-19 and "Trump failed us."

Also spotted: A woman dressed as a doctor and pulling a wagon filled with plastic skeletons.