(Adds quotes from debate)
By Trevor Hunnicutt
March 15 (Reuters) - Joe Biden smiled and reached his elbow out to touch his rival Bernie Sanders’ arm on Sunday, an unusual greeting that started a Democratic presidential debate during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sanders and Biden, vying for their party’s nomination to face Republican President Donald Trump in the November election, met in a Washington television studio with no live audience in the room, a move also made to limit possible exposure to the virus.
The hands-free gesture opened a debate marked by fear of what one of the debate moderators called a “national emergency” connected with the virus that has killed 65 Americans, infected nearly 3,000, roiled financial markets and upended daily American life.
Globally, more than 162,000 are infected and over 6,000 have died.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to stop shaking hands and instead “use other noncontact methods of greeting” to stop the virus spreading.
Trump violated that guidance when he shook hands freely with business executives who appeared alongside him at coronavirus news conference on Friday.
“I’m not shaking hands,” Sanders said when asked what steps he was taking to protect himself from the coronavirus. “Joe and I did not shake hands.”
Sanders, 78, had a heart attack last October. Coronavirus is believed to be especially deadly in older victims and those with chronic medical conditions.
“Fortunately I don’t have any of the underlying conditions,” said Biden, 77. “I wash my hands God knows how many times a day.”
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney