WASHINGTON — The vice presidential debate set for Wednesday will feature plexiglass barriers between Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Kamala Harris and the moderator, organizers said, amid a growing dispute over whether in-person debates should be held at all.
The Commission on Presidential Debates agreed to the request from the Biden campaign. The Trump team did not object, though “they didn’t want the vice president surrounded by plexiglass,” said commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. “They don’t want to have him in what looks like a box.”
Top Pence advisers said late Monday that they did not support plexiglass for their candidate and that discussions were ongoing.
The decision follows a furor over the debate Sept. 29 between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, during which several people in Trump’s entourage did not wear masks. The president tested positive for the coronavirus later in the week and was hospitalized for three days.
At least 11 people involved in the setup and staging of last week’s presidential debate have tested positive for the virus. Several senior members of Trump’s administration have also announced positive tests, including people involved in the debate preparations.
The news came hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its website to say the coronavirus can sometimes be spread by tiny droplets that linger in the air for hours and infect people who are farther than six feet apart, solidifying a long-held consensus among public health experts that even indoor distancing measures are not infallible.
As the dangers of large indoor gatherings have become increasingly apparent, a growing number of public health experts and some political operatives are asking why the debates must be held in person, at a time when Americans are getting accustomed to virtual versions of everything from concerts to plays to high school graduations.
Pence should be in a 14-day quarantine, some experts said, since he has interacted with Trump and attended a recent Supreme Court nomination ceremony in the Rose Garden, seated with a number of people who have since tested positive.
“The vice-presidential debate is one that if you’re following CDC guidelines, that debate should be virtual,” said Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard University medical school.
Extra precautions taken in the debate hall will not be sufficient, she said.
“It’s not necessarily how many feet away [Pence] is from Kamala Harris,” Walensky said. “The fact is he’s going to drive somewhere, fly somewhere. There’s a whole cascade of people that he could be exposing for him to show up on that stage. When they say quarantine, they mean stay at home and don’t be out and about.”
Pence aides say he does not need to quarantine because he has not been in close proximity to Trump.
Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the debate’s organizers should make sure that the federal guidelines are enforced. “There’s CDC guidance on this. The advice that’s being given all around the country is stay home for two weeks. He should stay home for two weeks. It’s not that complicated,” Sharfstein said.
“The vice-presidential debate is important,” Sharfstein added. “Just do it virtually.”
Both campaigns, however, say they fully intend to take part in Wednesday’s debate and are moving forward with the expectation that the next presidential debate will take place Oct. 15 in Miami.
The campaigns have signaled that they do not want to risk being portrayed as afraid to show up for a debate, concerned that it could be cast as a sign of weakness. The Commission on Presidential Debates has said it defers to the campaigns, and the Cleveland Clinic, which is overseeing the safety guidelines, has taken an advisory approach rather than an enforcement role.
The result is that none of the participants or organizers is heeding the advice of a broad swath of public health experts who recommend moving the debates online. And some political experts are making the same case.
Longtime Republican operative Doug Heye tweeted: “Given what’s happening with positive testing in the West Wing and how positive tests can lag, Wednesday’s Vice-Presidential debate should be postponed until we know it can be safely held. Moving forward is irresponsible.”
A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Clinic did not respond to specific questions about individual safety measures.
“There’s nothing specific to share at this point, as discussions are taking place,” said spokeswoman Alicia Reale Cooney in an emailed statement.
But the clinic has distanced itself from responsibility for the infection of 11 people involved in debate preparations in Ohio. “The 11 positive individuals identified under the testing protocol did not receive credentials to perform their duties. The 11 positive test results were confirmed before the individuals accessed the building or debate hall the day of the debate,” Cooney said. “They were instructed to quarantine as a result of their positive test.”
The safety issue also arose in a debate Saturday in the South Carolina race for the U.S. Senate, when Democratic candidate Jaime Harrison brought a plexiglass barrier and placed it between himself and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, saying it was not just for his own sake but also that of the people he cares for.
Regarding Wednesday’s debate, the Pence and Harris camps have been arguing over spacing and arrangements. The candidates now will be seated at two tables set more than 12 feet apart, a change from the initial design, which put Harris and Pence seven feet apart at a single table.
The two campaigns have been sniping about the setup for their upcoming faceoff. “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” said Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller, referring to the plexiglass.
Sabrina Singh, a campaign spokeswoman for Harris, tweeted in response, “Interesting that @VPComDir Katie Miller mocks our wanting a plexiglass barrier on the debate stage, when her own boss is supposedly in charge of the COVID-19 task force and should be advocating for this too.”
After last week’s presidential debate in Cleveland, Biden advisers were frustrated that the regulations — including that all guests in the debate hall wear masks — were not enforced by the commission or the Cleveland Clinic. They say they have been assured that the protocols will be enforced in the next debate.
Irwin Redlener, who is a senior research scholar at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and has previously advised Biden’s campaign, said the setup needs to be modified for any future debates.
“There should be greater separation, maybe plexiglass,” Redlener said. “And they absolutely should refuse to seat anyone who doesn’t wear a mask. I don’t care who they are or who they’re related to.”
But lingering questions about the upcoming debates remain unanswered, including whether the president’s family can be forced to wear masks.
“There’s only so much you can do when you’re dealing with the president of the United States,” Fahrenkopf said, adding that the debate commission would continue to trust the candidates’ medical teams if they certify that their attendees have tested negative.
If the second presidential debate is held on Oct. 15 as planned, it will come two weeks after the White House confirmed Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis. The CDC advises that those who contract the virus isolate themselves for at least 10 days after symptoms first appear.
Biden, who turns 78 next month, told reporters Monday that he would defer to health experts in terms of attending the debate alongside Trump.
“Listen to the science,” Biden said when asked what precautions he wants. “If scientists say that it’s safe … then I think that’s fine.”
Biden’s aides suggest that he is eager to appear at the debate if conditions permit.
“We’re hoping that President Trump can participate. We hope — we’re hoping that he’s medically able to participate. And, you know, that’s up to his doctors to clear him,” said senior adviser Symone Sanders on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But Joe Biden will be at that debate.”
Several hours later, senior Biden adviser Anita Dunn took a slightly different tone. “If the president is not cleared at that point or if he is not healthy at that point, then there’s not going to be a debate,” she said, adding that Biden is eager to go forward with it if possible.
Jill Biden, wife of the former vice president, did not hide her concern for her husband’s health Monday. As Biden addressed reporters on the tarmac before his trip to Miami, she walked up to him as he was in the middle of an answer, grabbed his arms, and pulled him backward to create more distance between him and the scrum.
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The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey, Sean Sullivan and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.