Coronavirus fears prompt Biden, Sanders to cancel campaign rallies

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Michael Martina

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Michael Martina

CLEVELAND, March 10 (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders called off their primary election-night rallies over coronavirus fears, forgoing the traditional spectacle of addressing cheering supporters as polls close in six states across the country.

The dueling Tuesday night rallies, the first major U.S. campaign events to be canceled because of the outbreak, had been scheduled for Cleveland in Ohio, which along with Florida, Illinois and Arizona hold nominating contests next Tuesday ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Six states, including Michigan, were holding their contests on Tuesday to help choose the Democratic nominee to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in November's general election.

"We are heeding the public warnings from Ohio state officials, who have communicated concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak," Mike Casca, the Sanders campaign communications director, said in a statement.

Kate Bedingfield, Biden's communications director, said the rally would be canceled "in accordance with guidance from public officials and out of an abundance of caution." Biden planned instead to speak to reporters in Philadelphia, where he also was expected to address the coronavirus crisis.

The campaign has narrowed to a two-way battle between Biden, the former vice president running as a moderate, and Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont and a self-described democratic socialist.

Both candidates have criticized the Trump administration over its response to the coronavirus, which causes a highly contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

The disease has so far sickened more than 800 in the United States and killed 28, mostly in Washington state. Washington also conducts its primary on Tuesday, though voting in that contest occurs by mail.

Both campaigns said they would consult with health officials about future events, hours after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called for all large-scale indoor gatherings to be avoided.

While the outbreak has shaken financial markets, forced school closures and prompted organizers to cancel concerts, conferences and sporting events, the candidates have largely pressed on as usual, holding events and shaking hands.

Trump, who has sought to play down the extent of the threat, has held several campaign rallies in recent weeks aimed at stealing the spotlight from the Democrats seeking to challenge him in the November election.

Concerns over the virus have had an impact on local election officials, who are preparing for the possibility of absent poll workers, creating long lines at voting locations. A Democratic presidential candidate forum in Florida scheduled for Thursday was canceled. (Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Michael Martina, writing by Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)