March 11, 2020 / 1:55 AM / 25 days ago

Biden, Sanders cancel rallies due to coronavirus fears; no debate audience

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders cancelled primary election-night rallies on Tuesday over coronavirus fears and the party said the next debate between the two contenders would have no audience.

The duelling rallies - the first major U.S. campaign events to be cancelled because of the outbreak - had both been scheduled for Cleveland. Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Arizona hold nominating contests next Tuesday in the Democratic presidential race.

On Tuesday, six states, including Michigan and Washington, are holding nominating contests in the race to nominate a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election.

The Democratic race has narrowed to a two-way battle between Biden, the former vice president running as a moderate, and Sanders, a senator from Vermont a self-described democratic socialist.

The Democratic National Committee said on Tuesday that its next presidential nominating debate in Arizona on Sunday would not have a live audience because of health concerns.

“We are heeding the public warnings from Ohio state officials, who have communicated concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak,” Mike Casca, the Sanders campaign communications director, said in a statement.

Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director, said the rally would be cancelled “in accordance with guidance from public officials and out of an abundance of caution.” Biden planned instead to speak to reporters in Philadelphia, where he also was expected to address the coronavirus crisis.

Both candidates have criticized the Trump administration over its response to the coronavirus, which causes a highly contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

The disease has so far sickened almost 1,000 people in the United States and killed 29, mostly in Washington state. Washington also conducts its primary on Tuesday, although voting in that contest occurs by mail.

Both campaigns said they would consult with health officials about future events, hours after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called for all large-scale indoor gatherings to be avoided.

While the outbreak has shaken financial markets, forced school closures and prompted organizers to cancel concerts, conferences and sporting events, the candidates until now have largely pressed on as usual, holding events and shaking hands.

Trump, who has sought to play down the extent of the threat, has held several campaign rallies in recent weeks aimed at stealing the spotlight from the Democrats.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Journalists asked Vice President Mike Pence at a Tuesday news briefing if the Trump campaign’s plans were changing given the coronavirus worries.

“That’ll be a decision that’s made literally on a day-by-day basis,” Pence said. “I’m very confident that the campaign will take the very best information and make the very best decision going forward.”

Concerns over the virus have had an impact on local election officials, who are preparing for the possibility of absent poll workers, creating long lines at voting locations. A Democratic presidential candidate forum in Florida scheduled for Thursday was cancelled.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Michael Martina; Writing by Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney

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