Biden, Sanders consider changing campaign plans amid coronavirus outbreak

By Sharon Bernstein and Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders said on Monday they were consulting with public health experts about coronavirus risks in planning their next campaign moves, as election officials in upcoming primary states urged people to consider voting early.

Neither Sanders, a senator from Vermont, nor Biden, the former vice president, has called off a major rally because of the outbreak that has sickened more than 110,000 people and killed almost 4,000 globally, although public health officials have urged people at risk for contracting the disease to avoid large gatherings.

There have been 605 confirmed cases in the United States, with 22 deaths.

The winner of the Democratic nomination will take on Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election. Trump has said he would not stop holding campaign rallies.

"Every organization in America is taking a hard look at what the coronavirus means for their operations, and yes, that’s true of our campaign, as well," Sanders told a coronavirus roundtable in Michigan, one of six states that vote on Tuesday in the next round of the state-by-state nominating competition.

"We do not hold a rally without first conferring with local public health officials.”

Biden told NBC on Monday he would consider calling off rallies if health authorities warned they were too risky

"I'm looking to the CDC for advice on that," Biden said, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We're going to follow the recommendations of the experts ... and if they conclude that there shouldn't be big indoor rallies, then we'll stop big indoor rallies."

At a rally in Detroit on Monday, Biden's campaign provided hand sanitizer to attendees and press.

A "Women for Trump" bus tour set to be led by the president's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, was canceled on Monday, because of scheduling issues, his campaign said. The New York Times reported that sources close to the campaign said the cancellation was spurred by concerns over the coronavirus.

Several of the states holding nominating contests in coming days have adopted measures aimed at protecting voters from contracting or spreading the virus.

Florida's government urged voters to consider voting early for its March 17 Democratic presidential nominating contest, and Arizona braced for the possibility of poll workers staying home that day.

In Michigan, which votes on Tuesday, officials told poll workers to step up plans to sanitize voting booths and other equipment. Washington state - the hardest-hit state in the country - caught a break because its Tuesday contest is vote-by-mail.


Fears of the spread of the virus have led officials to cancel events and conferences across the country, including a planned Saturday event by Democrats in Washington state.

Arizona officials are bracing for the possibility that poll workers will not show up on March 17 because of illness or fear. They are combing through a statewide volunteer database to identify potential replacements if needed, according to the Arizona Department of State.

In Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, officials are seeking the power to extend voting hours on March 17, reassign early voting locations and even change voting days, said Frank Herrera, a spokesman for the county clerk's office.

Florida, the nation's third most-populous state and home to a large population of elderly people, has 19 confirmed cases of the virus and has declared a state of emergency.

State voters who have symptoms can designate someone to pick up their absentee ballots up until Election Day, Laurel Lee, Florida's secretary of state, wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Florida authorities have emailed local election officials recommendations from the CDC on how to prepare polling places amid the spread of the virus. The recommendations include advising poll workers to stay home if they feel ill and steady cleaning of voting locations throughout the day.

In Orlando, Florida, a forum for the presidential candidates that had been scheduled for Thursday was canceled because of coronavirus concerns, said Carolyn Bobb, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Flint, Michigan, and Michael Martina in Detroit; Editing by Scott Malone, Tom Brown and Peter Cooney)