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Pence team agrees to allow plexiglass barrier near him at VP debate after back-and-forth over Covid precautions

Posted October 6, 2020 5:12 p.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2020 10:15 p.m. EDT

Pence team agrees to allow plexiglass barrier near him at VP debate after back-and-forth over Covid precautions

— Mike Pence's team agreed Tuesday night to allow the Commission on Presidential Debates to erect a plexiglass barrier near the vice president for Wednesday's debate in Salt Lake City, a Pence aide and commission member told CNN, bringing an end for now the negotiations over coronavirus safety precautions around the contest.

Pence's team made clear throughout the week that they thought putting any plexiglass barriers near the vice president was unnecessary and that they opposed such a move. Sen. Kamala Harris' team, however, wanted the plexiglass barriers, in part, because of the ongoing spread of coronavirus inside the White House and the fact that Pence attended a Rose Garden event over a week ago that may have been the genesis of the spread. Pence has since repeatedly tested negative for the virus.

"We have inquired as to the medical or scientific need for a plexiglass barrier when two times the (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) distancing guidance has been implemented," said a Pence aide. "But most importantly the Vice President is looking forward to having a conversation about the marked shift left that Joe Biden wants to take this country, so we are not going to let a barrier prevent the Vice President from making the case for four more years of Donald Trump."

Physical barriers like plexiglass are typically recommended when social distancing cannot be maintained. The candidates will be separated by 12 feet on stage. Masks are considered the best defense against both droplet and aerosolized transmission of the virus.

A member of the commission said the decision came on Tuesday evening, adding that there will now be two curved plexiglass barriers between Pence and Harris, one close to the vice president and one close to the California senator.

The commission member said the Pence team agreed Tuesday evening that "if (Harris) feels safer having it up on her side, they will leave it up on his side."

The commission was prepared to allow Pence to participate in the debate without a plexiglass barrier around him, after the Pence team objected to its planned use. Even if Pence had followed through on that objection, however, Harris and the debate moderator would have been allowed to erect barriers separating them from the vice president.

The plexiglass dividers, which were announced by the commission Monday night, were the latest in a string of changes made to ensure the virus is not spread at the debate as the White House deals with a growing number of infections inside the Trump administration.

The commission and both campaigns had been meeting all Tuesday to hammer out last minute details of the debate, said the commission member, and met again Tuesday evening.

Harris "is the one who wanted plexiglass, so if she has plexiglass surrounding her so she is cut off from everyone else, that is fine," said the commission member. "If (Pence) doesn't want plexiglass, that is up to him."

Multiple Pence aides told CNN on Tuesday that the vice president does not want plexiglass barriers around him at the debate. The Washington Post first reported Pence's opposition to it.

"We have yet to hear medical evidence what the plexiglass is for," Pence's chief of staff Marc Short told CNN.

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The Harris campaign had thought the use of plexiglass was a settled issue, but said she would be at the debate.

"Senator Harris will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned," said Sabrina Singh, a Harris campaign spokeswoman. "If the Trump administration's war on masks has now become a war on safety shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their Covid response is a failure."

Debate organizers are requiring that anyone in the hall other than the candidates and the moderator must wear a face mask, all of which came after they were advised to make changes by their medical advisers at the Cleveland Clinic.

Short had said the Pence team didn't have a problem if Harris wanted a plexiglass shield to protect her from the virus at the debate. But the Pence team believed it not necessary for the vice president to have plexiglass as well.

A Pence aide had also told CNN that Harris and the moderators "can do whatever they want," but the vice president's team does not feel like they have to follow along.

The health decisions made for the vice presidential debate on Wednesday will certainly hang over the two future presidential debates -- one in Miami on October 15 and another in Nashville on October 22. Trump has said that he plans to show up for the forthcoming debates despite his positive coronavirus diagnosis, leading debate organizers to consider a host of contingencies for how to host each debate safely. One possible option is to hold the debates virtually.

"The Commission, including me, is certainly open to virtual operations of the debates, without question," said another commission member, who asked for anonymity to speak openly about forthcoming deliberations.

The debate commission, which organizes the debates and works with the campaigns, said Monday night that "plexiglass will be used as part of the CPD's overall approach to health and safety," confirming earlier CNN reporting that plexiglass barriers would be erected to separate Pence, Harris and the moderator.

The setup for the Wednesday debate -- the one and only contest between Harris and Pence -- has been in flux ever since the President, first lady Melania Trump and multiple White House aides tested positive for coronavirus.

Despite a number of positive coronavirus tests at the White House and that Pence attended a Rose Garden event over a week ago that is widely seen as the genesis for the spread among several Trump aides and allies, the vice president has continued to test negative and the debate is moving ahead as planned.

Jesse Schonau, Pence's physician, said in a memo released Tuesday that the vice president does not need to quarantine because he was not a "close contact" with anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pence has had multiple coronavirus tests that have resulted negative.

Even still, medical experts believe it is risky to hold the vice presidential debate in person at all.

"If he has had close contact, this shouldn't be going ahead," said Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, noting that Pence pushing ahead with the debate would mean he was putting not only Harris at risk, but his staff, Secret Service detail and everyone at the debate.

"I would hope that the people organizing this debate are not only focused on distance but also the quality of the air environment to ensure that it is safe from a transmission point of view," he said. "When you are in a smaller hall, then you are really relying on the ventilation and filtration of the space to ensure that what is being breathed out by an infected person be stripped out of that environment."

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

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