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Coronavirus is a specter in Sunday’s Democratic debate

Bernie Sanders,Joe Biden
Bernie Sanders, left, and Joe Biden chat before a Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25.
(Associated Press)

For the first time in more than half a century, presidential candidates on Sunday are debating on a closed television studio stage, with no audience present.

The quiet setting for the first one-on-one meeting between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders is just the latest way that the coronavirus is changing the norms of American life. The campaigns, debate sponsors and the Democratic National Committee decided to hold the debate at a television studio in the nation’s capital rather than in front of a live audience in Phoenix to reduce coronavirus exposure.

The virus, which causes a disease known as COVID-19, has already infected at least 2,815 people in the United States and killed at least 59.

At CNN’s Washington, D.C., studio, Biden’s and Sanders’ lecterns are positioned six feet apart, the space the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for the “social distancing” that it says is key to slowing the spread of the virus.

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Such guidelines are of particular importance for people like Biden and Sanders, who fall into one of the most at-risk age groups — the elderly. Former Vice President Biden is 77 and Vermont Sen. Sanders is 78.

The two-man debate is the first since the winnowing of the Democratic field. The pandemic, which has dominated television airwaves, emptied grocery store shelves and shuttered schools across the nation, is sure to be a primary topic of discussion tonight.

Both men have already pointed to coronavirus to buttress the foundation of their respective campaigns. Biden has argued that the Trump administration’s uneven response shows the need for a return of a steady hand and leadership in the White House. Sanders cited the public health emergency to underscore the need for his “Medicare for all” healthcare policy.

Presidential debates typically draw hundreds of reporters, political leaders and activists. They are usually held in front of large audiences in the states most crucial to the upcoming election.

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Sunday’s debate was initially to be broadcast from the Arizona Federal Theatre in downtown Phoenix in advance of Arizona’s Democratic primary on Tuesday. The Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday that the debate, hosted by CNN and Univision, would not be held in front of a live audience. Two days later, the DNC moved the debate to Washington, D.C.

The debate will air from 5 to 7 p.m. Pacific time on CNN, CNN en Español, CNN International and Univision. It will also stream on CNN.com, CNN’s mobile apps, the CNNgo apps for streaming devices like AppleTV and Roku, and Univision’s digital properties.


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