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Coronavirus Concerns Shift Presidential Debate From Michigan To Florida

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump are currently set to debate three times.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump are currently set to debate three times.

A presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 15 will no longer be held at the University of Michigan.

University President Mark Schlissel sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates explaining that coronavirus concerns made the logistics too difficult for the school to pull off.

"Given the scale and complexity of the work we are undertaking to help assure a safe and healthy fall for our students, faculty and staff and limited visitors — and in consideration of the public health guidelines in our state as well as advice from our own experts — we feel it is not feasible for us to safely host the presidential debate as planned," he wrote.

In March, the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus was the site of one of the final large rallies of the presidential campaign, before coronavirus concerns shut down all in-person campaign activity for months. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew an estimated 10,000 people, just days before most of the country went into quarantine mode.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced the debate will instead be held at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. The venue hosted the first debates of the Democratic presidential primary last summer.

While Michigan was one of the first states to see a heavy wave of coronavirus infections, Florida's cases have risen drastically in recent weeks, after the state became one of the first to open back up economic activity.

The debate's Oct. 15 date will not change. As of right now, the other two face-to-face showdowns between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden remain unchanged: Sept. 29 at the University of Notre Dame, just outside South Bend, Ind.; and Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Vice President Pence is scheduled to debate Biden's yet-to-be-decided running mate on Oct. 7 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The venue shift comes as the Trump and Biden campaigns argue over how many debates to hold this fall.

Trump's campaign recently challenged Biden to four face-to-face debates, rather than the three already announced and sanctioned by the commission. It's the type of proposal traditionally floated by a candidate behind in the polls, though the Trump campaign is tying it to its attempts to make the 77-year-old Biden seem physically and mentally weak.

"It's pretty obvious that Joe Biden's handlers are afraid to send their candidate out without a script and teleprompter handy," campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.

Trump is 74 years old.

Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon sent a letter to the commission Monday confirming Biden's commitment to the original plan of three debates, plus an additional forum for the two vice presidential candidates.

"Now that Donald Trump is trailing badly in the polls, and is desperate to change the subject from his failed leadership of the country, we are seeing reports that he has his own proposal for debates — after having said, just six months ago, that he might not want to participate at all in planned debates. No one should be fooled: the Trump campaign's new position is a debate distraction," she wrote.

In the letter, O'Malley Dillon made it clear the Biden campaign, which has been far more careful about coronavirus precautions than the Trump campaign, thinks the debates can and should take place this fall.

"There is no reason why Vice President Biden and President Trump cannot meet for debates with appropriate safety and social distancing measures (set by public health authorities) on the three dates the CPD has identified," she wrote.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.