How the First Presidential Debate Filmed Live With Pandemic-Level Safety Measures

The audience at Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University's shared campus was limited to 100 people, with members wearing masks and socially distancing.

The first 2020 presidential debate between Joe Biden and President Trump featured COVID-19 safety measures like a socially-distanced audience and no handshakes, reflecting how 2020's political live events have changed and will continue to evolve amid the ongoing pandemic.

The small debate audience was socially distanced and pre-tested for COVID -19 while Biden and Trump, who did not have to wear masks on the podium, agreed not to shake hands during the event, which aired live at 6 pm PT on multiple news channels and streamed live at The Washington Post, in order to mitigate risk. The debate took place at Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University's Health Education Campus in Cleveland.

Prior to the debate, Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic released several safety precautions that the event was taking, including putting extra space between seats, limiting the audience size and conducting "personal health screenings." According to the Associated Press, the atrium of the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion, where the debate is taking place, had space for around 100 people to attend in person, socially distanced. Each campaign was given 20 tickets for its members and seats were outfitted with antibacterial wipes.

The moderator, Fox News' Chris Wallace, also said that a ground rule for the debate was that the audience "promised to remain silent — no cheers, no boos or other interruptions so we can focus on what the candidates have to say" — and the audience largely adhered to that rule. COVID-19 has been shown to spread via respiratory droplets, which can be released when people cheer or speak.

Trump showed he had a mask on his person when, at one point, Wallace asked Trump about his statements on masks to prevent COVID-19. He pulled a mask out of his jacket pocket: "I have a mask right here, I'll put a mask on when I think I need it," he said.

After the debate, First Lady Melania Trump and Biden's wife Jill Biden arrived on the stage to greet their husbands: Melania did not wear a mask, whereas Jill did.

COVID-19 was naturally a central topic of conversation in the debate: Biden slammed Trump's response to the pandemic, saying "200,000 people... have died on his watch." Trump argued that if Biden had been in charge, more people would have died, and continued to maintain (contrary to some health experts) that drug companies could have a vaccine by Election Day. Biden argued that experts believed a vaccine could be ready for the public by next summer and said, "The president has no plan."

As of Monday, Cleveland had over 150,000 total reported cases of COVID-19 and nearly 5,000 deaths. Its 21-day reported case average was 975.