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Belmont’s road to the White House: What it took to host a presidental debate

Hosting a presidential debate is a massive undertaking — and Belmont saw no shortage of challenges while making this event happen.

“Our faculty, staff and students have been working toward and looking forward to this moment for the past year. There have been countless details, I mean, it’s got to be a thousand that have had to be managed,” said university President Dr. Bob Fisher in a press conference Friday.

“We’ve been forced to rethink this event. From top to bottom, I’ve been so impressed with their ability to just roll with it.”

Belmont’s path to again serving as a host site was fraught with obstacles: a denied application in 2012, the COVID-19 pandemic and the complex task of securing a campus full of students for a national event.

“Of course we were disappointed not to have this opportunity in 2012, but it is so exciting to be able to host the debate in 2020,” said Provost Dr. Thomas Burns.

When Fisher announced last year that Belmont would be hosting the final presidential debate, no one could have predicted the global pandemic and country-wide shutdown to follow only a few months later.

“Things have changed since that commitment was made, but their support has not changed,” said Fisher. “The city of Nashville … stood with us every step of the way.”

Belmont is the only one of the three original schools to host a debate. The University of Notre Dame and the University of Michigan both backed out of their planned debates due to safety fears regarding COVID-19.

The second debate was canceled altogether after President Trump tested positive for the virus, raising the stature of the Belmont debate even more. Belmont’s debate will be the second and final debate coming just 12 days before Election Day.

Despite this and the virus’ presence in Nashville, Belmont remains hopeful to host its debate live and in-person.

“This year has been full of surprises and challenges due to COVID,” said Burns. “Debate preparations have been greatly influenced by the challenges of travel, the need for social distancing and masking, and the new health and safety protocols that are necessary — none of which have been in place at debates in prior years.”

Belmont has worked closely with HCA Healthcare to implement said protocols and minimize the risk of COVID-19’s spread.

“The HCA healthcare team looks forward to supporting a successful and healthy debate,” said Dr. Jonathan Perlin, HCA President of Clinical Services at a press conference Friday.

Beyond those health precautions, Belmont also had to make room for expanded security measures; and facilitating this means relocating students from five different freshman dorm halls.

Residents of the affected halls will be moved to the Gaylord Opryland Center from Oct. 21-22. Students will be provided meals and a space to watch the live debate, all while remaining socially distanced from one another.

“I think one of the biggest challenges has been managing all of the details of hosting the debate on an active, vibrant campus – from having to move students to Opryland, to planning for food delivery,” said Burns.

“Just managing all of the moving parts to make sure that we are supporting our students has been enormous.”

Nashville Mayor John Cooper said he believes Nashville has made great progress in controlling the spread of the virus in order to safely welcome the debate.

“Nashville is able to host this event because of our COVID-19 progress. And we have a reputation for safety that we had built and we are maintaining,” said Cooper.

“I want to encourage my fellow Nashvillians to continue to practice healthy habits because we know it is working. Masks are working, social distancing is working, Metro’s public health ordinances are working to keep us safe and to keep our economy running, and will help us stage a safe debate.”

While preparing for the debate, Belmont has been able to offer not only Belmont students opportunities to engage with the debate, but community members as well.

Engagement opportunities for Belmont students involved over 30 different debate-related classes and events, said Fisher. As for community members, more than thirty thousand debate-themed coloring books were given to Metro school children.

“While the debate itself will only last 90 minutes, the lessons imparted and the experiences that folks are having around this will last for a lifetime,” said Fisher. “Those are just some of the reasons that we are committed to hosting this vital event.”

As the day of the debate draws closer, anticipation is settling in for everyone involved — and Burns, who is helping oversee much of it, is no exception, he said.

“I’m excited and anxious,” said Burns. “I feel that way about move-in, graduation and the Battle of the Bands too, though. It’s incredible to have these events on our campus, exciting to be near the action, but also worrisome because we want these events to go well.”

Despite all the difficulties the debate has presented, Burns said Belmont is still interested in potentially hosting a third presidential debate on campus.

“Of course we are – who wouldn’t be?”  

This article written by Madison Bowen.

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