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V.P. debate plans at University of Utah not changing as COVID-19 cases spike

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( Kingsbury Hall )Sunday Extra photos of Interior and exterior of Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, Kingsbury Hall, and the Grand Theater March 18, 2008 Photo by Scott G. Winterton / Deseret Morning News.

Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah will be the site of the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a record number of COVID-19 cases in Utah, the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah will be held as planned on Oct. 7, campus officials said Friday during a news conference held in the massive media tent already set up in President’s Circle.

“We don’t have a threshold” for canceling the debate between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, said Alison Flynn Gaffney, U. health care executive director of service lines, ancillary and support services and the hospital’s incident commander for the debate.

However, the case count is being monitored “multiple times a day to see where we are,” she said, adding protocols are already in place, such as requiring masks, social distancing and sanitization as well as mandatory testing.

She said those measures, taken “in anticipation of numbers rising or numbers leveling,” should make the event as safe as possible.

“We are confident that someone who is positive will not gain entry into the debate hall or into this hard perimeter that you’re standing in right now around our campus. And that’s no one,” she said. There will be a special testing facility set up at Rice-Eccles Stadium with a 12-hour turnaround for debate participants.

The health care professionals involved in preparing for the event, which include Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, are already on the 11th version of their plan but aren’t likely to make adjustments based on the spike Utah is seeing, including another 1,411 cases Friday, Flynn Gaffney told the Deseret News.

“That’s not even anything that we’ve really felt was going to be necessary. With the protocols in place, we’re creating as safe an environment as we can,” she said, although there could be changes in how many people are permitted on site for the debate being held in Kingsbury Hall.

The hall holds nearly 2,000 people, but right now plans call for just 200 to be allowed inside, Flynn Gaffney said, including law enforcement and invited guests. There’s also some 200 journalists expected to cover the debate from the media tent as well as more than 300 student volunteers.

“Not being able to predict the future, what I would say is our community should be confident in our ability to pivot should we need to,” she said.

Starting Monday, all classes at the University of Utah will be online for two weeks as part of what’s being called a “circuit breaker.” About 21% of classes have been held in person, U. communications director Chris Nelson said. He said there will only be limited services for the 3,400 students who live on campus during that time.

Security preparation with the U.S. Secret Service and other agencies means that campus access will be “extremely limited” and there will an increased police presence, U. Chief Safety Officer Marlon Lynch said, warning that University Avenue between 100 South and 300 South will be impacted.

“I’m looking forward to a safe event,” Lynch said, adding there will be an area set aside for protesters “and that is welcome. However, vandalism and violence will not be tolerated.”

Jason Perry, U. vice president for government relations and chairman of the vice president debate steering committee, said the debate — the only one between the two vice presidential candidates — is expected to attract 100 million viewers around the world, making it one of the most-watched political events.

“This is a significant event,” Perry, also the director of the U.’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said, and one that the campus and the Utah Debate Commission competed to hold. The U. was selected to host the debate a year ago by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“They’re interested in the Utah brand. They’re interested in the way Utahns engage in the political process,” Perry said. “We are seen on the national stage as a place that not just is interested in politics but there is a Utah way about politics. ... We are able to do much more in terms of policy than you might think for a state our size.”

Two of the three campuses selected by the commission to host presidential debates — Notre Dame University and the University of Michigan — pulled out over the summer, citing concerns about the deadly virus. But Perry has said that was never a consideration at the University of Utah.

“This is good for the state of Utah,” he said Friday.

Correction: In an earlier version the University of Utah communications director was incorrectly identified as Chris Peterson instead of Chris Nelson.