SALT LAKE CITY — Just how big the audience will be inside the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall for the upcoming debate between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California still hasn’t been finalized, but there will be room for students.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the hall’s nearly 2,000 seats will be empty during the 1½-hour vice presidential debate on Oct. 7. Those seats that will be occupied during the debate are mainly for guests invited by the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates, although some will be set aside for the university.
“There are no details about what those numbers are,” said Jason Perry, U. vice president of government relations and chairman of the campus’ debate steering committee, as well as director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, of the scaled-back ticket allocations. “The health situation is going to drive that.”
All of the U.’s seats will be distributed to students, Perry said.
“It’s imperative that we make sure that this event is for the students at the University of Utah,” he said, adding that “President (Ruth) Watkins will not have a seat in Kingsbury Hall. No administrative officials will have seats inside Kingsbury Hall. We’re going to give those tickets to the students.”
Watkins’ office is hosting a virtual debate watch party for alumni and she’s expected to participate, Perry said. It’s one of a number of online watch parties being planned by the campus, as well as by the Utah Debate Commission, a vice presidential debate partner.
Members of the news media coming to campus to cover the debate will also be viewing the action from outside the hall. A media tent is being set up in President’s Circle to accommodate some 250 journalists, also a much smaller number than originally anticipated.
U. Communications Director Chris Nelson said with students moving to all online classes during that time, media coverage won’t be able to capture “the vibrant campus you would normally have. ... It’s a mixed experience. I think part of the excitement of this was trying to create that campus buzz.”
Nelson said about quarter of the student body is currently on campus, and not all are aware the debate is coming. He said he’s seen students posing for selfies under banners promoting the debate, but is still hearing from others that they didn’t know the U. had been selected to host.
“We just keep trying to get the word out,” Nelson said. “I think people are getting excited to showcase the university.”
Some 900 people, including community members, signed up to volunteer for the debate, but there are only about 200 positions to fill, said Morgan Lyon Cotti, association director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and volunteer and academic program director for the debate.
“We had such a large response, we actually had to shut down the applications a few days early,” Lyon Cotti said. The call for volunteers had been planned for the spring, but was delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak until late last month.
She said with only about a quarter of the originally anticipated number of volunteers needed, those positions will go to students.
“It was put on such a smaller scale and there were limited opportunities. We really have focused on students for the volunteers,” Lynn Cotti said. “Our focus is student experience.”
Volunteer assignments, which range from transporting officials around campus in a golf cart to serving as stand-ins for Pence and Harris on stage as the lighting is set up, are still being made, she said. Remote training is set to start in a few days,
Utah’s novel coronavirus caseload is once again spiking, even as the University of Utah team led by Perry and the national commission, along with others including the U.S. Secret Service, work through the preparations for the debate, expected to be viewed by some 100 million people around the world.
“This is a situation that’s being monitored every single day,” he said, including by the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio that is handling the COVID-19 protocols for all of the national commission’s debates — the sole vice presidential debate in Utah and the three debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Perry said masks and social distancing will be required at the event, and temperature checks as well as testing for COVID-19 may also be required to ensure no one with the virus enters the secured area that will include the debate venue and the surrounding area.
“From the Secret Service to the health care professionals, it started at a very high level of concern and that has not changed. So I would not say circumstances have made them even more concerned, because they started there,” he said, adding the event was always going to be monitored closely.
“This is a group that thinks about every single aspect of this event, from the best case scenario to the worst case scenario,” Perry said. “They haven’t just checked into the worst case — they had always considered it.”