A combination picture shows US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaking during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate. Picture: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER
A combination picture shows US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaking during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate. Picture: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER

US President Donald Trump, fresh from hospital and still battling Covid-19, tweeted on Tuesday morning that he is “looking forward” to his next debate with Joe Biden on October 15. “FEELING GREAT!” he tweeted separately.

Here’s hoping the president is indeed feeling better and will continue to get better still. Regardless, that event should not take place in person. Nor should the other remaining debates, including those between vice-presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Mike Pence.

With the coronavirus continuing to spread through the White House and among others close to Trump, the risk of infecting debate participants and staff is unacceptably high. The involved media outlets and the Commission on Presidential Debates need to immediately shift the events to a virtual format. The candidates can participate remotely from separate studios, or even from their home studios. But under the current circumstances it would be irresponsible for the show to go on as planned.

Even before the president fell ill it was arguably folly to hold face-to-face debates. These events typically take place indoors, lasting upwards of 90 minutes. The participants, including the moderators, spend the entire time talking at one another, loudly. Moving the podiums further apart and reducing the number of attendees, as has already been done, or even moving the debates outdoors as some are suggesting, isn’t enough to address the risk.

It’s not like these would be the first remote presidential debate. In 1960, the third debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon was held with the competitors on separate coasts. Nixon was in a studio in Los Angeles, while Kennedy was in a studio in New York. The moderator and a panel of questioners were in a third location, also in Los Angeles.

If split-screen technology could be managed back then, surely something can be worked out nowadays. A virtual face-off may not be ideal for sizing up the contenders — but it’s far more important to protect the health of all involved. /New York, October 6

The New York Times

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