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Pandemic forces university officials to adapt, change VP debate plan

Crews put finishing touches on the stage at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in preparation for Wednesday’s vice presidential debate. (Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday’s vice presidential debate at the University of Utah will look a lot different than what most were expecting when the location was announced a year ago. University officials say organizing an event of this size during a pandemic has required a lot of creativity and problem-solving.


Simpler times, before the pandemic

It was almost a year to the day, October 11th, 2019, when it was announced that the U of U would host a vice presidential debate. At that time, the coronavirus was not dominating the discussion and social distancing was hardly on anyone’s mind.

“The original plan was upwards of 1,000 media [members] on campus and to have a big viewing party at Rice-Eccles Stadium,” explains Chris Nelson, Director of Communications with the University of Utah.

Nelson says the coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot in terms of what Wednesday night will look like. That will be obvious enough with a plexiglass barrier being placed between the debaters. He says one thing that did stay the same though, is the fact that all campus classes have moved online right now. The university was already planning on that for this week simply to make the logistics work.

“We originally had moved our fall break to this week to accommodate the vice presidential debate, because we knew it was going to be disruptive with students on campus,” he explains.

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

It should be noted that just because classes are online, that doesn’t mean students won’t be around campus. Around 300 student-volunteers will be doing several tasks like handing out credentials and acting as stand-ins for dress rehearsals throughout the day.

“My hope would be that volunteers take away from this experience how to be busy… very quickly,” says Lori McDonald, VP of Student Affairs at the University of Utah.

Some volunteers and staff will also draw traffic and parking duty. 1st South will be highly restricted around campus on Wednesday and the university is encouraging the public, for safety reasons, to stay away from campus.

Security is being handled by the University of Utah police, Salt Lake Police, and Utah Highway Patrol, while the United States Secret Service has control of the debate hall.