Coronavirus Meets Election 2020: Rallies, Polling Places Under Scrutiny

Updated at 11:13 a.m. ET

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to climb, election officials and political candidates are weighing how to make sure the political process doesn’t become the next casualty of the virus.

Packed public gatherings such as political rallies could pose a particular risk of virus transmission, although so far there’s no sign that’s taken place.

When asked Monday during a White House briefing whether campaigns should cancel big events, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the answer depended on the prevalence of the coronavirus in the community.

“If you’re talking about a campaign rally tomorrow, in a place where there is no community spread, I think the judgment to have it might be a good judgment,” Fauci said. “If you want to talk about large gatherings in a place where you have community spread, I think that’s a judgment call. And if someone decides they want to cancel it, I wouldn’t publicly criticize them.”

Fauci’s remarks came the same day that a member of Congress called on all campaigns to call off large events until the coronavirus threat subsides.

In a tweet, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said presidential candidates “must lead by example!”

While not overtly heeding Speier’s advice, the major presidential campaigns do appear to be changing some practices in response to the virus outbreak.

At an event for former Vice President Joe Biden in Flint, Mich., NPR observed that campaign staff were squirting hand sanitizer on the hands of everyone entering the rally.

Biden told NBC News on Monday that he was changing his behavior. “If you notice in here, we did a fist bump, we didn’t shake hands,” he said.

He said that if the campaign is advised by public health experts to not hold big indoor rallies, it would stop doing so but hasn’t received that guidance yet.

President Trump said the virus wasn’t changing any of his campaign plans.

“We’ll hold tremendous rallies,” Trump said over the weekend. “I’m not concerned at all” about the risk of coronavirus being transmitted at the events, he added.

But until now, Trump has held election eve rallies to grab attention away from Democrats in the days immediately before a primary. This week, his campaign didn’t schedule a rally before Tuesday’s elections.

Trump’s campaign also doesn’t have a rally scheduled before next week’s primaries when four big states cast ballots, including three — Arizona, Florida and Ohio — that are central to his reelection.

Over the weekend, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said, “We do more than just rallies. And we announce new events when they are ready to be announced.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign emphasized that it’s operating on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re listening to local officials” before scheduling big events, said Mike Casca, spokesman for the Sanders campaign.

The Democratic National Committee says it does not currently plan to cancel next weekend’s presidential debate between Sanders and Biden.

“We are in touch with local officials and will follow their guidance,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told The Arizona Republic. “There are no plans to cancel the debate.”

Polling places

In Michigan, which votes Tuesday, the secretary of state’s office is emphasizing to voters that there are no known cases of the disease in the state and is sharing health recommendations with local officials who run the state’s 5,000 precincts.

“We’re really just working with them to make sure that they have the CDC recommendations, that they know that they can maintain hygiene in their polling places while also still encouraging people to vote and without spreading fear before it’s due,” said Jake Rollow, the office’s communications director.

His office told local precincts to regularly clean voting machines, pencils and other high-touch surfaces with alcohol and disinfectant wipes to ensure the risk of virus transmission is low while also reassuring voters. The state is also encouraging voters to “increase social distances” while standing in line and casting ballots.

Last week, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs recommended that voters request absentee ballots for next week’s primary there.

In Washington state, which votes Tuesday, officials recommend that anyone casting an absentee ballot seal their envelopes using a wet sponge rather than licking the envelopes. Other states have offered similar guidance about absentee ballots.

One concern for election officials is that poll workers will either get sick or won’t show up for fear of possible exposure. During last week’s Super Tuesday elections, some election workers didn’t show up in Travis County, Texas, citing fears of the outbreak. Those no-shows led to some disruptions and delays in opening polling sites.

Michigan said election workers should give at least three days’ notice if they can’t serve but also told local officials that unexpected cancellations by poll workers were likely.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced Tuesday that he’s directed the state’s 88 counties to relocate any voting sites that had been planned to be in senior living facilities for the state’s primary March 17. The decision affects more than 125 locations, and officials say they’re trying to identify new sites quickly so they can inform poll workers and voters of the change as soon as possible.

LaRose also encouraged the state’s voters to cast their ballots early or by mail. He said county election offices will have curbside drop-off points available so voters can return their absentee ballots without getting out of their cars.

The state is also encouraging more residents to serve as poll workers because of concerns that some might not to show up. LaRose said state agencies will be sending e-mails to their employees suggesting that they consider taking the day off to serve. He insisted that it was still safe to work at the polls, where disinfectants will be used and other precautions will be taken.

But LaRose urged any poll workers having second thoughts to let their local election offices know as soon as possible. “The reality is that we expect that some may choose not to work on election day,” he said.

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