Former Vice President Joe Biden is known for his hugs, or bringing his head close with a supporter and sharing a private moment. Or shaking hands — a lot of hands. After Biden touched a lot of hands in Los Angeles last week, Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce spotted him touching his face. But that may all be changing.
As the U.S. struggles to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, Americans have been told to be careful about touching their faces and shaking hands, and to practice social distancing. Until now, the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Biden ― both men in their late 70s, a population at higher risk of experiencing deadly symptoms — haven’t appeared to personally take precautions on the campaign trail.
Asked this week what he’s doing to protect himself and stay healthy, Sanders, 78, initially laughed off the question.
“I am running for president of the United States and that requires a whole lot of work,” Sanders told NBC News. But in another interview with CNN, Sanders, again pressed on what he personally is doing to avoid the virus, acknowledged that “every American has to think about it.”
Biden, 77, told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that he wasn’t going to do the rope lines like he is used to, but is still shaking hands.
“It’s awfully hard,” he said. “I, you know, went down, waved to people, went through, touched arms, fist-bumped, that kind of thing. And I think you’re going to see more of that on the part of everyone, and they’re going to be guided by the issue of whether or not we should have big indoor rallies, those kinds of things. That’s all in motion right now.”
At an event Tuesday, however, Biden was in the middle of a crowd at an auto plant in Detroit, as he sought votes in Michigan’s primary.
More than 760 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the U.S., as well as more than two dozen deaths, as of Tuesday afternoon.
The two Democratic campaigns are taking precautions for their supporters. Sanders’ team said they have been in contact with local officials to ensure their rallies don’t put people at risk, and offered hand sanitizer at events during the candidate’s weekend Michigan swing. Biden’s campaign was squirting hand sanitizer upon entry for all rally attendees in Detroit.
But even as companies are calling for workers to stay home to slow the spread of the virus, campaign events remain in full swing — until the Centers for Disease Control recommends they stop, the campaigns have said. (On Tuesday, Sanders’ campaign announced it was canceling a rally in Cleveland that evening after state officials expressed concern about holding large indoor events during the novel coronavirus outbreak. This is the first campaign event of the 2020 presidential cycle to be canceled in light of the outbreak.)
The coming weeks will be crucial for Sanders, who is behind in the delegate count, if he wants to stay in contention. That means a lot more campaign events, a lot more rallies. And photos of campaign events show the candidates aren’t distancing themselves from supporters.
Sanders has made the illness a political message. On Monday, his campaign held a roundtable event on the novel coronavirus with doctors and nurses who have supported his campaign. It amplified his calls for a “Medicare for All” system that would move every American to a single, government-run health insurance program. He’s also called for any forthcoming vaccine for the illness to be free of cost, and reiterated his push for universal paid sick leave.
The roundtable panelists made the case for making health care free at the point of service, to encourage more people to get the care they need and not spread the illness more.
Sanders said the novel coronavirus outbreak shows “how far we are behind in some of the basic needs compared to other major countries.”
Biden and Sanders have also attacked President Donald Trump over his handling of the outbreak.
Biden told MSNBC that he wished Trump “would just be quiet” on the issue.
“Just let the experts speak and acknowledge whatever they suggest to him is what we should be doing,” Biden said.
Already, events that draw big crowds, like the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, have been canceled because of the virus. The campaigns did not comment on what precautions Biden and Sanders’ teams were taking.
Trump has repeatedly downplayed the risks of the virus’ spread in the U.S. He also has maintained a steady schedule of his own rallies, calling them “safe” when asked about it.
“And you could ask that to the Democrats, because they’re having a lot of rallies, they’re all having rallies, they’re campaigning,” he has said. “I think it’s safe, I think it’s very safe.”