BY DOUGLAS HANKS
DAVID SMILEY AND JOEY FLECHAS
MIAMI — The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts will host a presidential debate in October, bringing the fullweight of the 2020 election to Miami less than three weeks before Nov. 3 election. The county-owned venue — which remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic — confirmed Tuesday morning that it will host the debate, expected to be the second between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
The event is scheduled for a Thursday evening, Oct. 15, and will be televised from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time without commercial breaks, according to The Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit that has sponsored and produced presidential debates since 1988.
“We are honored to have the opportunity to represent Miami on the global stage and to play a small role in the democratic process,” said Johann Zietsman, president of the nonprofit Arsht Center, which runs the complex.
A ‘town meeting’
The debate — planned as a “town meeting” in which local residents will be able to ask questions of the candidates — was initially scheduled to take place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But in a letter, university President Mark Schlissel asked the commission to release the institution from its hosting agreement, citing health concerns amid the pandemic.
“We feel it is not feasible for us to safely host the presidential debate as planned,” Schlissel wrote, noting that the university had considered public health guidelines in Michigan as well as advice from its own experts.
The debate is the second major political event to relocate in recent weeks from states concerned about the risks of the coronavirus to Florida, where confirmed coronavirus cases passed the 100,000-mark Monday. Early this month, the Republican National Committee announced it would move most of its presidential convention events to Jacksonville after the governor of North Carolina balked at demands to commit to allow a packed arena in Charlotte.
‘Impossible to predict’
The Republican mayor of Jacksonville and Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, have both noted that Jacksonville’s coronavirus cases remain relatively low in comparison to Florida’s hot spots.
But no region in Florida has experienced more confirmed coronavirus cases or related deaths than Miami, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, also a Republican, told reporters Tuesday during a news conference that the debate would have to be conducted without an audience were it held today.
“Right now we are not in phase 3,” Suarez said, referencing the most open of the three stages by which Florida has reopened locales for business and recreation. “I can’t see it, today, being hosted with people in the audience. Impossible to predict where we will be on Oct. 15.”
Suarez tested positive for the coronavirus in March, and has since been cleared. He was among several local mayors who announced orders Monday mandating that people wear masks in public, and told the Miami Herald he was also concerned about demonstrations that could occur outside the debate.
Suarez said he believes some of the uptick in coronavirus infections in Miami-Dade might be linked to recent protests against police brutality.
Arsht Center policy
The nonprofit that runs the Arsht Center, which hosted the first Democratic primary debates in June of last year, submitted a reopening plan Monday night to county administrators for approval. It includes a requirement that anyone entering the Arsht Center wear a mask at all times unless eating.
The Arsht’s reopening plan also slashed capacity for the theaters inside. While the Knight Concert Hall can hold more than 2,000 people, the submitted Arsht plan caps capacity there at 384. The Ziff opera house has seating for 2,400 people, but capacity in the plan is listed as 560.
Suzette Espinosa, head of communications for Arsht, said of the debate Tuesday that “both parties have agreed to comply with all health directives.” The commission announced in a news release Tuesday that it “will be following all CDC, state, county and site health and safety protocols at the four debate sites.”
The New York Times first reported Monday night that the debate would be held in Miami.
Miami Herald staff writer Michelle Marchante contributed to this report.