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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (C) greets New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (L) as California Senator Kamala Harris (L) and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (R) cheer during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan on March 9, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Joe Biden is still shaking hands. Bernie Sanders is still hugging the people who introduce him. And Donald Trump says he has no intention of halting his signature campaign rallies.

Even as the surge in coronavirus cases spooked the stock market and led at least five members of Congress to quarantine themselves Monday, it has not yet spurred the leading presidential candidates to change their campaign styles, as they stick with habits that public health experts now advise against.

As six states head to the polls on Tuesday, local officials are reacting much differently. Washington State is instructing voters to seal their mail-in ballots with wet sponges or cloths - using the slogan “whether healthy or sick, please don’t lick” - while poll workers are wearing gloves to open them. Michigan is urging election clerks to regularly wipe down everything from doorknobs to voting booths with disinfectant. Missouri is moving polling locations from assisted living centres to protect the elderly from exposure to the virus.

Voter turnout

Missouri officials also contacted the manufacturers of the election equipment to find out how to clean it and passed that along to election clerks, with hygiene guidelines, according to Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. He added he was confident that voter turnout would remain high despite the outbreak.

“I don’t believe voters are going to let concerns about coronavirus stop them,” Ashcroft said. “They are going to be cautious but we will see people participate.”

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US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking during a rally in St Louis, Missouri, on March 9, 2020. Image Credit: REUTERS

Yet some elected officials are now pressuring the three major presidential campaigns to pull back.

Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, called on Sanders, Biden and Trump to stop holding rallies and large-scale events on Monday, tweeting that “the candidates must lead by example.” And Ohio Governor Mike DeWine urged supporters of Biden and Sanders to “think long and hard” about going to campaign rallies in his state.

Advise from health experts

Public health experts advise against many of the campaign activities that presidential candidates routinely engage in, like shaking hands, giving hugs. And people over 60 have been urged to avoid crowds.

We will have tremendous rallies and we’re doing very well and we’ve done a fantastic job with respect to that subject on the virus.

- Donald Trump, US President

That advice applies even more so to Trump, Biden and Sanders; who are 73, 77 and 78, respectively.

Christopher Ryan, a managing director at K2, a security and investigations firm, said that candidates should be rethinking their approach to public events, especially as they travel with a large retinue around the country, including to places that have not yet had diagnosed cases of the coronavirus.

“No candidate wants to be patient zero for a community in the heartland,” he said.

Small steps at hygiene

The campaigns have taken some small steps. Bottles of hand sanitizer can now be seen at many Sanders events. At rallies over the weekend in Missouri and Mississippi, Biden skipped his usual extended stay on the rope line, where he typically grabs voters’ phones for selfies, shakes their hands and gives them hugs, and he used hand sanitizer when he sat down to eat at a soul food buffet in Jackson.

Volunteers supply hand sanitizer to the public before entering a campaign rally at Renaissance High School for Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice-President Joe Biden in Detroit, on March 9, 2020. Image Credit: AP

The former vice-president told reporters he would listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to modify his campaign activities.

“Whatever advice they give me, we’ll take,” he said.

But Biden - whose old-school campaign style drew complaints last year from several women who felt he invaded their personal space - hasn’t given up on personal contact. On Monday in Flint, Michigan, for instance, he and Cory Booker shared a hug after the New Jersey senator announced his endorsement.

Sanders gave high-fives as he walked on stage at a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and hugged the people who introduced him.

Indoor rallies

Both candidates are still planning large indoor rallies as they fight for the Democratic nomination state-by-state through a densely packed primary calendar this month. And Trump said over the weekend that he would continue holding campaign rallies with thousands of supporters regardless of the threat of the virus.

“We will have tremendous rallies and we’re doing very well and we’ve done a fantastic job with respect to that subject on the virus,” he said Saturday.

Former Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg said Monday that the coronavirus should cause candidates to rethink how they campaign, something that has evolved over the centuries.

“Look, the style of campaigning has always evolved from people campaigning on their front porches “- and just the crowds would come to them “- to whistle-stop tours on trains,” he said on MSNBC. “Now, we might be forced by this crisis, but with all of the different capabilities and possibilities for reaching voters, we should find new ways to do this if it’s the right thing to do “- not just for the candidates’ safety, but for that of the voters.

Clifford Mitchell, director of the environmental health bureau at the Maryland Department of Health, said that neither state or federal officials are advising against holding large public events at this point. But he said that anyone planning one should think about ways to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus.

Those could include recommending that anyone who feels sick or is older than 60 stay home, livestreaming events, making sure there are good supplies of soap and hand sanitizer at venues and avoiding handshakes and hugs on stage in favour of alternative greetings.

“Personally, if you ask me, I’m elbow bumping,” he said.

Risk is bipartisan

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist in Washington, said that the restrictions really only apply to presidential candidates, since even statewide candidates rarely attract crowds large enough to be a concern. But he said that campaigns would need to find alternative ways firing up supporters, gathering emails and phone numbers and getting in the news in targeted states and areas.

He said that might include more creative uses of social media or out-of-the-box ideas like having the candidate randomly call a small-dollar donor or interact with a supporter on social media, something Elizabeth Warren did during her presidential campaign.

“The campaigns are going to need to be more agile,” he said.

Ron Faucheux, a Louisiana-based political analyst, said that the restrictions on campaigning would affect the candidates in different ways. Biden has only recently seen a surge in attendance at his events, while Sanders has long been drawing huge crowds. Trump draws a lot of attention from his rallies, which advisers say also seem to recharge him personally.

But he said they all face the same risk.

“The worst possible thing a candidate could do is hold a rally and then some people get sick as a result,” he said.