SALT LAKE CITY — The day before Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris take the debate stage at the University of Utah, there was controversy over plans to use plexiglass barriers in addition to separating the candidates by more than 12 feet to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is working with health officials from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and the U., announced Monday that "plexiglass will be used as part of the CPD's overall approach to health and safety" in Kingsbury Hall, a decision sought by Harris.
Pence initially balked, and there were reports that after a day of negotiations he would be allowed to participate without a barrier around him, although Harris and the debate's moderator, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, would use plexiglass to separate themselves from the vice president.
But Tuesday evening, the New York Times reported Pence had backed down and will accept the barriers that had already been installed earlier in the day.
"We don't think it's needed," Marc Short, the vice president's chief of staff, told the Times. "There's no science to support it. The tables are 12 feet apart and each participant is tested. It's important for the American people that the debate go forward, and if she's more comfortable with plexiglass then that's fine."
Pence had requested that no barriers be used on his side of the stage, according to a Washington Post report.
Earlier in the day, Sabrina Singh, Harris' press secretary, told KSL the Trump campaign was escalating its "war" against protective measures against the virus.
"Sen. Harris will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned. 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," Singh said.
Besides keeping the candidates, who will be seated, even further apart than initially planned, the commission is requiring they be tested for COVID-19. Anyone entering the portion of the University of Utah campus secured for the 90-minute debate that starts at 7 p.m. must also test negative for the virus, wear a mask and social distance.
The candidates themselves will not wear masks onstage during the debate.
White House physician Jesse Schonau released information about the vice president's health Tuesday, saying, "Pence has remained healthy, without any COVID-19 symptoms, and has continued to have daily COVID-19 antigen tests and intermittent PCR tests which have resulted as negative."
The physician's statement said Pence "is not a close contact with any individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, including President Donald J. Trump and senior members of the White House administration," according to Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
The vice president was traveling Tuesday afternoon through Thursday of last week, according to the statement, then remained at his residence through Sunday "out of an abundance of caution." He arrived in Salt Lake City Monday evening on Air Force Two from Washington, D.C.
The physician said Pence "is encouraged to go about his normal activities and does not need to quarantine."
Later, a second statement was released from Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, spelling out that after "a detailed discussion" with Schonau, "the CDC concludes from a public health standpoint, it is safe for the vice president to participate in the upcoming vice presidential debate."
Pence tested negative again Tuesday, the White House said.
Trump, who tested positive for the virus last week, returned to the White House Monday after spending three days in the hospital. He removed his mask during a photo opportunity, then recorded a video saying no one should let the deadly virus "dominate" their life.
Presidential debate expert Aaron Kall, who arrived in Salt Lake City Tuesday for the vice presidential matchup, said the plexiglass barrier is "a metaphor, a proxy for the entire election" that the tens of millions of viewers expected to tune into the debate won't be able to miss.
Pushing for additional precautions should benefit Harris, Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said. "If one of the two candidates is kind of paying more attention to science and CDC guidelines and being extra cautious, then it seems like that would be the prudent thing to do and voters and viewers would recognize that."
Kall said high school and college debates are now largely being conducted remotely, but there is precedent for using plexiglass barriers from last Saturday's Senate debate in South Carolina, where Democratic candidate Jaime Harrison brought a plexiglass divider to his debate with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Adding an extra layer of protection to the debate stage, Kall said, "does seem appropriate" given the president as well as other officials including Utah Sen. Mike Lee have tested positive for the virus. He said it gives a message that COVID-19 should be taken seriously.
Utah health experts stressed the safety aspect.
"It can't hurt. It can only help. And it also shows, I would think, the debate commission and the people who advise them want to take as many precautions as they can to protect individuals," said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease and public health specialist with Intermountain Healthcare.
If one of the two candidates is kind of paying more attention to science and CDC guidelines and being extra cautious, then it seems like that would be the prudent thing to do and voters and viewers would recognize that.
–Harris, Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan
"Every layer of protection and mitigation is probably going to do something," Vento said.
He questioned whether there was concern the barrier would send an "image that you don't want to be portrayed when the reality is the most important thing that can be portrayed to the American people right now is that we have a deadly virus that is much more deadly than influenza, despite what some others might believe."
Dr. Dagmar J. Vitek, Salt Lake County medical director, said public health officials remain focused on getting people to wear masks, social distance, wash their hands and stay home when possible to halt the spread of the virus.
"Any barrier is probably better than nothing, but it absolutely does not replace masks and social distancing," she said, adding plexiglass can help stop large droplets and that keeping the candidates more than 12 feet apart "is great."
Vitek said the public response to seeing plexiglass onstage is unclear. She said they already see such barriers "everywhere, in stores and pharmacies and banks. So maybe people are more receptive. They know that we're just trying to increase the safety and the plexiglass may be a part of that."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the plexiglass barrier is being politicized by the Republican presidential ticket, just as wearing masks has been, despite the president's health crisis.
"They seem to be under the impression that presenting an image without masks and without other precautions is an advantage to them in some way," Karpowitz said. "The Trump campaign seems to be in a very different place than most Americans."
He said it's a "very unusual strategy, in my view, to take a threat that has killed over 200,000 Americans and behave as if it's not really a threat at all. That is the messaging that came from the president yesterday and it's consistent with not taking additional precautions in the debate hall."
Increased mail-in voting, COVID-19, and a variety of state-by-state election formats contribute to a unique 2020 election. As a result, it is likely that many close House and Senate races, as well as the presidency, will not be called on Nov. 3.
States may also shift in outcome in the days or weeks following the election — an expected change experts have warned about as results are returned. While human error happens, both mail-in and in-person voting have extremely low rates of fraud.
The state of Utah has used vote-by-mail since 2012. It has safeguards in place to make sure every ballot it receives is legitimate.