SOUTH BEND — The University of Notre Dame has decided not to host the first presidential debate in September, citing health precautions that would have been required.
“The constraints the coronavirus pandemic put on the event — as understandable and necessary as they are — have led us to withdraw,” the university’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, said in a release Monday.
The debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden was scheduled for Sept. 29. It will now be held in Cleveland, co-hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic.
The University of Michigan had previously announced that it was pulling out as host of the Oct. 15 presidential debate.
Jenkins said he made the decision after consulting with Dr. Mark Fox, St. Joseph County’s deputy health officer, and that members of the Board of Trustees supported the move.
He said in the release that he made “this difficult decision” because health precautions “would have greatly diminished the educational value of hosting the debate on our campus.”
“The inevitable reduction in student attendance in the debate hall, volunteer opportunities and ancillary educational events undermined the primary benefit of hosting — to provide our students with a meaningful opportunity to engage in the American political process,” Jenkins wrote.
In an interview, Fox said he met with university leaders several times over the past few months, consulting with them on plans for both the debate and fall classes.
“We certainly never said, ‘No, you can’t have the debate,'” Fox said. “But we had a series of pretty thoughtful and thorough discussions on the implications of both, from a public health standpoint, for the university campus as well as broader considerations for the county.”
In addition to the health of students, Fox said he was concerned about bringing hundreds of people, including campaign staff, security personnel and news media, to town amid the pandemic.
Another factor in the decision, he said, was “the wild card that no one knows: in this political climate, the potential for significant demonstrations or protests, over which there’s very little control.”
University spokesman Paul Browne said it became clear over the past month that physical distancing requirements would have allowed fewer than 100 students to attend — out of a total of 8,500 undergraduates. A watch party at Notre Dame Stadium also would have been canceled.
“The rationale for us to do it went away with the lack of student participation that we had hoped for,” Browne said. “We just became a place as any other place without that student engagement.”
Browne said the decision does not mean the university will move away from its plan for in-person classes. Last month, Notre Dame announced that students would return to campus for fall classes but with a host of new safety protocols, such as daily self-screenings, widespread use of face coverings and residence hall changes.
“We can teach students safely with fewer students in the classroom but in more places than we would normally,” Browne said. “We can do instruction in a safe fashion. We just couldn’t accommodate thousands of students in one place to watch the debate.”
Notre Dame has hosted presidents for commencement ceremonies in the past but September’s presidential debate would have been its first.
The loss of the debate will also be a blow to local businesses. Rob DeCleene, executive director of Visit South Bend, said the news was tough to swallow, as area hotels and restaurants already are facing the loss of critical revenue with so many questions surrounding college football.
“We were very hopeful about it … but totally understandable that we can’t,” DeCleene said. “This was pretty much one of the last events on the calendar, so that’s why this one is just a little bit tougher. The publicity alone really would have put South Bend and Notre Dame in a lot of national and international media.”
DeCleene hopes Notre Dame will get a chance to host a debate in 2024.
“Right now, that’s the way we’re approaching every cancelation that we get,” DeCleene said. “The first thing we’re trying to do is ensure that we remain on the radar for any of our groups.”
In Cleveland, the debate will be held at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion, a 477,000-square-foot building for dental and medical students that Case Western and the Clinic joined forces on.