In Tennessee, final debate puts surging virus in spotlight

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People walk outside the Curb Event Center at Belmont University as preparations take place for the second Presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden are scheduled to debate Thursday, Oct. 22. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden arrive in Nashville Thursday for their final debate before the Nov. 3 election, they’ll be greeted by a city with rising coronavirus case counts inside a state immersed in a debate of its own about mask-wearing.

Meanwhile, medical professionals warn that the next wave of the virus is looming.

It’s a strikingly different landscape from 2008, when Nashville last hosted a presidential debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican challenger John McCain at Belmont University. Back then, the city was on the cusp of an economic boom that would eventually draw coveted events like the NFL draft.

Fast-forward to a year of unprecedented disruption to live music and other public gatherings, and Tennessee health officials are now reporting record-breaking virus numbers in the days leading up to the debate. In spite of their warnings, visitors have been making their way back to Nashville’s famous honky-tonks and other tourist spots across the state in steadily rising numbers.

Separately, the White House coronavirus task force quietly warned Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee that “a statewide mask mandate must be implemented” to curb the virus outbreak, although the task force has no legal authority to require mandates, which Trump opposes.

Trump has left such matters up to the states and Lee, a Republican, has maintained that a blanket statewide mask mandate is not the best solution to fighting the virus, even as it spreads, particularly in rural regions of the state. Instead, the governor has allowed local leaders to decide if they want to implement such mask requirements.

Nearly a year ago, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame would also hold 2020 presidential debates. Those schools later bowed out, citing COVID-19 concerns.

But Belmont University President Bob Fisher says canceling the debate never crossed his mind. He says he was always confident Belmont could pull off the debate, even in a pandemic.