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Second presidential debate will be virtual, commission announces

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday that the second meeting between President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE and Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Senate approves two energy regulators, completing panel Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race MORE will be virtual “to protect the health and safety of all involved.”

The commission said the debate will take the form of a town meeting, with the candidates participating from separate, remote locations. The moderator and questioners will still be in Miami.

But the president and his campaign immediately cast doubt on his participation.

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"I'm not doing a virtual debate," Trump said, saying it would be a waste of his time. 

Trump indicated the commission did not inform his campaign prior to the announcement that the debate would be virtual. The decision may backfire on the president should he sit out, as he is trailing in national polls and several swing state polls with less than a month until Election Day. The debate represents one of the few remaining opportunities for Trump to close the gap with Biden on a national stage.

The Biden campaign indicated the former vice president would still participate, despite the change in format.

“Vice President Biden looks forward to speaking directly to the American people and comparing his plan for bringing the country together and building back better with Donald Trump’s failed leadership on the coronavirus that has thrown the strong economy he inherited into the worst downturn since the Great Depression," deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.

Trump’s bout with COVID-19 had cast uncertainty over the fate of the second debate, even though both campaigns signaled a willingness to participate in next week’s event in Florida.

The president's campaign said on Tuesday that he intended to participate in person. One day earlier, Biden told reporters that he would defer to medical experts on whether it would be safe to hold the event, but appeared willing to take part if they signed off.

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Biden later couched his answer to say he did not think the event should take place if Trump was still infected with the virus, which is highly contagious and has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States.

Health experts, however, have argued it was not worth the risk for the two candidates to debate in person when there are alternatives available. Both men are in their 70s and are therefore at higher risk for severe complications from the virus.

Trump first tested positive for COVID-19 last Thursday, and he has had symptoms since at least last Friday. But the White House has refused to say when Trump last tested negative or fill in the timeline around his diagnosis, making it difficult to know when he was first contagious or when it might be safe for him to venture out.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 can be around others 10 days after symptoms first appeared so long as they have gone 24 hours without a fever and other symptoms are improving. More severe cases require longer isolation, however.

The debate is scheduled to take place on Oct. 15, which would be 14 days from when Trump first revealed his diagnosis.

Experts also raised concerns that others working or participating in the debate hall could potentially bring in the virus. At least 11 people connected to the first presidential debate in Cleveland have since tested positive for COVID-19, as have multiple members of Trump's debate prep team that traveled with him last week.

— Updated at 8:16 a.m.