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Was Cleveland Clinic Or Debate Commission In Charge At Presidential Debate?

Guests at the first presidential debate take their seats, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Patrick Semansky / AP]
Guests at the first presidential debate take their seats, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Patrick Semansky / AP]

Updated: 7:00 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 6 

Cleveland Clinic officials said in a statement Tuesday evening that questions about enforcement of COVID-19 safety protocols during the first presidential debate in Cleveland should be directed to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The debate commission has not returned ideastream's request for comment about its plan to enforce the mask requirement during the debate, and which entity was in charge of making sure rules were followed.

The Cleveland Clinic has been criticized for not enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols during last week’s presidential debate, as President Trump and numerous staff members have since tested positive for COVID-19.

The hospital system, which serves as a health security advisor for the debates, has come under fire for not taking more action after the president's family members refused to wear masks during the debate.

In addition, the clinic was also criticized for relying on the campaigns’ medical teams to test the candidates for COVID-19. Those safety protocols were approved by the Commission on Presidential Debates, clinic officials said.

The debate commission was likely in charge of enforcing the protocols, so the criticism might be aimed at the wrong company, said Bruce Hennes, CEO of crisis management company Hennes Communications.

“Everything I know about the commission on presidential debates is – it was their show,” Hennes said. “I don’t think it was the Cleveland Clinic’s role to enforce the rules. It wasn’t at this debate, and it won’t be for the next two or three debates.” 

The clinic is working with the debate commission on safety protocols for all four presidential debates.  

Clinic officials did not answer questions Monday about who was in charge of enforcing the COVID-19 rules. 

“I mean, what would they have done … when the Trump family said they wouldn’t put their masks on? Would they hold their hands up and say to the TV networks – ‘I’m sorry, there’s not going to be a debate in the next 5 minutes?’ I can’t imagine that would be their role,” Hennes said.

Hennes Communications is a financial supporter of ideastream.

Debate guests, including Akron resident Elizabeth Bartz, witnessed a Cleveland Clinic doctor approach attendees who were not wearing masks, or who were wearing cloth masks, and offer them a surgical mask to wear. Members of the Trump family reportedly declined.

“I think if the Cleveland Clinic came up to me and said ‘hey, put your mask on,’ I would have put my mask on,” Bartz said.

Clinic officials said they will reach out to debate guests to address questions and concerns, but Bartz has not yet heard from them.

Officials also reported Oct. 2 that they were aware of 11 cases related to the debate, but Clinic officials have since clarified that the individuals were either members of the media or scheduled to work on debate preparations and set-up, and did not access the building or debate hall.

No COVID-19 cases have been linked to the debate at this time, clinic officials said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.