WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – When Jill Biden noticed her husband standing too close to journalists for her comfort while taking questions on Monday, she walked up and pulled the 77-year-old U.S. presidential candidate back.
People surrounding Democratic nominee Joe Biden are taking heightened measures to protect the self-described “tactile politician” from a pandemic that has reached the White House, infecting President Donald Trump himself.
The Biden campaign – spooked by Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis just days after debating the former vice president face-to-face last week but unwilling to sideline him so close to the Nov. 3 election – said their candidate would be tested for the virus several times a week compared to just once per week before.
Biden also has started keeping his mask on throughout his remarks on the campaign trail, even when standing alone at a podium.
Both changes mark a new protocol for the campaign, which regards the novel coronavirus as an existential threat. Weeks ago, asked to name the biggest risk to the campaign, one of Biden’s aides was blunt: “a medical event.”
Trump had repeatedly mocked Biden for being risk-averse before his own hospitalization on Friday due to the virus, including during the debate.
A Biden adviser, who asked not to be named, said the turn of events with Trump’s health validated the safety-first approach that had been scorned even by some Democrats worried that Biden was being too cautious and not traveling enough.
The new protocols adds more complexity to a campaign that already had shattered norms.
Many Biden events now play to near-empty rooms and include no voters at all. Rigid adherence to regulations that vary state to state have meant cutting people from guest lists or redesigning events altogether, as in Michigan, where a rule prohibited more than 10 people from gathering indoors.
Campaign volunteers and staff painstakingly stage every room where the candidate appears. Preparing for an event last month in Florida, one person helping the Biden campaign described taking to her hands and knees to lay tape and measure out the six feet (1.8 m) of space needed for social distancing between seats.
At Biden’s events in Miami on Monday, an aide disinfected the podium with wipes before the candidate took the microphone. Large circles were mapped out on the ground to designate where participants and media members were to stand at an outdoor event in the city’s Little Haiti neighborhood.
Trump’s team, by contrast, has flouted safety measures. The president has held large rallies indoors and wears masks only occasionally.
Many of Trump’s guests at last week’s debate, including family members, refused masks offered by event organizers at an Ohio healthcare facility. Biden on Monday said that was “disconcerting” to him at the time.
Since then, the Biden campaign has pushed for more safety procedures for upcoming debates. They convinced the sponsor of those events to add plexiglass barriers at Wednesday’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, and won a new rule barring people from the room who refuse masks.
Negotiations are ongoing for the presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 15.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Berkrot)