How CNN Is Planning a Safe Debate (One Step: Six Feet Between the Lecterns) – The New York Times

They say political debating is a contact sport.

So how exactly does that work in the age of social distancing?

As Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders prepare for a televised debate on Sunday night amid the growing coronavirus crisis, CNN said it was taking every precaution to keep the proceedings sanitized — if not bloodless.

The candidates’ lecterns, for instance, will be placed six feet apart, in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for keeping a safe distance from others.

There will be no live audience. Only a dozen people will be physically present in the Washington television studio where the debate is taking place: two candidates, three moderators, six camera operators and a floor director — the TV equivalent of a stage manager. (Some audio technicians may also occasionally come in and out.) Many employees have shifted to working remotely.

Hand sanitizer, and lots of it, is readily available: inside the studio, in the green rooms where candidates and their aides relax before the broadcast, and beside the moderators’ desk.

As for soap and water? “Bathrooms are right outside the studio, so sinks are very close,” Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, who is overseeing Sunday’s debate, said in an interview.

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Neither Mr. Biden, 77, nor Mr. Sanders, 78, is thought to be carrying the coronavirus. But the two Democrats are at an age that is considered at higher risk for severe effects from the illness. And like many news organizations, CNN has moved aggressively to protect against infections.

Hair and makeup artists are still on call, but correspondents have been urged to handle their own cosmetic needs to reduce the number of staff members on-hand.

Mr. Feist said that cleaners were wiping down doorknobs and other hard surfaces in the bureau “multiple times an hour,” with extra attention to areas that “a guest, a CNN staffer, or, in this case, a candidate might enter or touch.”

Sunday’s broadcast is thought to be the first presidential debate to be held in a closed television studio since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, according to Mr. Feist. Those encounters, the first televised debates of the mass media age, took place at television stations in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

With only Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders onstage, it will also be the smallest Democratic debate of the campaign; several earlier debates featured as many as 20 candidates and had to be spread over two nights. Timing rules will be similar to past debates, with 75 seconds allotted for each candidate’s response, though fewer zingers and zippy sound-bites are expected.

“Debates with two candidates tend to be more of a conversation than other debates because time is less of a factor,” Mr. Feist said. “While those are the rules, the reality of a debate with two candidates is that it’s likely to be more conversational.”

Sunday’s debate was originally planned for an Arizona theater with a large audience. CNN, Democratic officials and the campaigns agreed to move the location to Washington, reducing the need for hundreds of political aides, journalists and TV crew members to take cross-country flights.

The CNN anchors Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, along with the Univision anchor Ilia Calderón, will serve as moderators. Another moderator, Jorge Ramos of Univision, relinquished his spot as a precaution after he believed he had been possibly exposed to the coronavirus; Mr. Ramos has no symptoms and has said he feels healthy.

The absence of a live audience will add an additional wrinkle for two candidates accustomed to the reactions of a crowd. Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders will also be standing at their lecterns when the broadcast begins, Mr. Feist said, so viewers will not see a dramatic entrance.

Wait. What about the handshake?

“CNN is not choreographing the greetings and salutations of the candidates,” Mr. Feist said. “That’s up to them.”


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