On Wednesday night, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will meet at the University of Utah for their first and only debate of the 2020 election cycle. But they won’t be the only presence on the debate stage. They’ll be joined by moderator Susan Page of USA Today and two plexiglass barriers, intended to reduce the potential spread of covid-19.
Following President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump’s positive covid-19 diagnosis nearly one week ago, many White House players have tested positive as well: Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller, White House adviser Hope Hicks, former adviser Kellyanne Conway, Trump campaign adviser and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and more. However, Pence and his wife have continued to test negative for the virus. Knowing this, Pence and Harris decided to proceed with the debate as scheduled, but the Harris camp had one demand: a solid barrier of protection between the two candidates.
It was a fair enough request following reports that Trump didn’t take a covid-19 test prior to the first presidential debate, relying on a faulty “honor system” instead. Given the announcement of Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis three days later and an unclear timeline as to when Trump last tested negative for the virus, Trump could have very well been asymptomatic but contagious during his debate against former Vice President Joe Biden. It’s a risk the Harris camp isn’t willing to take with Pence, who has not been quite as cavalier about the benefits of face masks as Trump, but has presented mask-wearing as a “personal choice.”
After initially opposing having a plexiglass barrier on his side of the stage—Pence spokeswoman and noted terrible human Karen Miller said, “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it”— the Pence camp relented. But the plexiglass reveal has done little to ease concerns about viral spread. The Presidential Debate Commission confirmed that Pence and Harris’s desks are 12-feet apart, double the distance of the social distancing recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, this is ice cold comfort: Photos of the barriers look somewhat unsubstantial to the naked eye. Upon seeing a photo of the setup, my colleague, Megan Reynolds, quipped, “I have been in nail salons with better barriers.
But it’s not just everyday observers who have their reservations.
“This plexiglass barrier is very inadequate for prolonged exposure,” said Jim Duehr, a medical student and research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine with a Ph.D. in virology.
Duehr explained that the plexiglass might be sufficient for “large droplets” which make up the bulk of transmission during short periods of time and don’t travel very far. Consider the glass barriers installed at the grocery store between the checkout line and the till. Such a barrier is sufficient for the relatively short time the employee and customer spend on opposing sides of the glass. But for an hour-and-a-half-long maskless indoor debate?
“It is not at all enough for the smaller saliva droplets that are aerosolized in the air frequently, which we now know also contribute to the spread of the virus,” Duehr said. “[Those droplets] travel much more chaotically in the air and spread quite well indoors floating on the turbulent currents that A/C units create that will float around and up and over.”
This conclusion mirrored that of Dr. Noc, a PhD scientist with training in immunology and pharmaceutical science. Noc has achieved a considerable amount of fame on TikTok, where he uploads informative videos about health, science, and—notably—covid-19.
“With prolonged exposure, talking, and potentially raised voices, the risk of transmission will continuously increase with time, especially if that room is not well ventilated,” Noc said. “Although the shield will stop the direct path of droplets from going toward each other, there is a definite chance that other smaller respiratory particles will eventually accumulate in the space to the extent that they may be infectious.”
Noc noted that the amount of infectious virus that covid-19 positive people shed varies. Most “super spreader” events—particularly in small, indoor, and poorly ventilated spaces—are caused by those who shed large amounts of the virus as they exhale.
“My overall take is that the plexiglass will help, but it will certainly not provide absolute protection,” Noc said. “Similarly, the distance between podiums will help, but not 100 percent.”
Jezebel reached out to the University of Utah Health for their take on the debate’s safety procedures but was told they are not fielding such inquiries. The University directed Jezebel to the Commission on Presidential Debates instead, but the media inquiry division did not answer the phone and, according to an automated message, had a full voice mailbox to tend to anyway. Jezebel also emailed the Commission directly, but has yet to receive a response.
Duehr said that if he were responsible for making the debate as covid-proof as possible—aside from requiring Pence and Harris to wear masks—he would place their desks even further apart and install plexiglass barriers that are larger both horizontally and vertically. He would also make sure the “air exchange” in the auditorium was incredibly high, three to four times the normal rate of a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
“That’s what I would have done,” Duehr said. “But it probably doesn’t make as good television.”