Kuntzman: CWRU and Cleveland Clinic should not host an in-person presidential debate

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Columnist

On July 27, before even releasing the plans for students returning to campus in the fall, Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic(CC) announced that they would be co-hosting the first presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle. While debates are an important part of the electoral process and hosting the debate on CWRU’s campus would provide students with a valuable opportunity under better circumstances, CWRU and CC should reevaluate their decision to host the debate at the Health Education Campus (HEC) in light of the pandemic. 

The University of Notre Dame was initially supposed to host the first debate, but chose not to due to the logistics of hosting during a pandemic. Similarly, the University of Michigan backed out of hosting the second presidential debate due to COVID-19. Hosting the debate at the HEC does provide some distance from CWRU’s main campus, reducing the likelihood of CWRU students coming into contact with people and potentially protecting students’ health and safety. However, this does not account for local residents who could be put at a greater risk by the influx of outsiders. 

Hosting an in-person presidential debate presents several other inherent risks. Both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are protected by the Secret Service, requiring that groups of people accompany them, rather than a couple of individuals. At this time, it is not clear if an audience will be allowed at the debate, but if there is, having one could undermine the university’s efforts to keep students away from people with COVID-19. As Cuyahoga County’s Health Commissioner Terry Allan described, Cuyahoga County’s local transmission rate is high, so it is plausible that an infected person could be in the audience. While proper sanitization, requiring that people wear masks and having socially distanced seating could significantly reduce the risk of hosting an audience, this could be undermined by factors such as individuals in the audience not wearing their masks properly. 

In addition to the potential risk of spreading COVID-19 at the debate, hosting the debate at the HEC presents a double standard between what the university asked students to do and what the university is inviting people outside of the campus community to do. 

On June 11, CWRU administrators sent out an email to undergraduate students, informing them that the academic calendar had been changed to limit travel to and from campus. In an article about living on campus this fall, they explicitly stated that students are to avoid traveling outside of Cleveland and interacting with those outside of the CWRU community. The fact that CWRU is hosting an event that requires people from outside of Cleveland to unnecessarily travel to our campus seems contradictory to the university’s effort to discourage its students from interacting with those outside of our immediate community. 

Furthermore, hosting a debate is a risk that is, frankly, completely unnecessary for students to have enjoyable and meaningful experiences this semester. On August 6, CWRU informed most second- and third-year students that they could not return to campus housing. Given that all second-year students are normally required to live on campus, this decision placed a particularly heavy burden on them. While allowing all students to return to their dorms or Greek Life housing could present a significant risk due to the challenges of social distancing in communal housing, having students on campus should be viewed as a more essential risk than hosting a debate.

If CWRU is so concerned about students’ safety that it pushed many undergraduates off campus, the university shouldn’t even be considering an unnecessary risk like hosting an in-person debate. CWRU’s time and resources would be better spent working to ensure its students’ safety and well-being. 

The coronavirus pandemic is presenting some significant challenges to how events can be run and the debate needs to adapt to these. If CWRU and CC continue to go forward with hosting the debate in-person, there should be no audience in order to minimize the risk of somebody with COVID-19 attending. However, the most sensible option considering the circumstances, as supported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, would be to host the debate online. 

Given that the Democratic National Convention was able to run the first night of its convention online with minimal technical difficulties, the debate likely could be moved to an online-only format and still be a useful and meaningful experience for voters while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Candidates may have to answer questions in pre-recorded clips for the debate, but they could answer the same type of questions moderators ask in a live debate and be given a time limit to keep the debate as close to an in-person format as possible. Regardless of the exact format used to run the debate, CWRU and CC should strongly consider having an online debate.