The full Democratic presidential ticket held its first joint campaign event on Wednesday. In a Wilmington, Delaware, gymnasium, Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris strode out to Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” in matching black face masks. Biden removed his when he got to the podium. Harris took hers off when she reached her seat, which was placed several feet away, such that she wasn’t visible in the podium camera shot.
“I wish we were able to talk to the folks outside, but we’re keeping our social distancing and playing by the rules,” Biden told the small audience of journalists. When the would-be first lady and second gentleman, Jill Biden and Douglas Emhoff, joined the candidates for post-speech photos, they wore masks, too, and only removed them once they reached the safe embraces of their respective spouses. Biden and Harris did pass within a few feet of each other when they switched places at the microphone, but after the event, the couples stayed far apart.
These careful protective measures against transmission of the novel coronavirus seemed designed to set a good example for viewers at home, drawing a sharp contrast to the reckless anti-mask posturing of the Trump administration. They also raised an important question about the planned mechanics of the Biden-Harris campaign: Are the candidates gonna pod, or what?
Quarantine pods, or bubbles, are one of the most effective harm reduction strategies for limiting coronavirus infection risk while maintaining some small semblance of normal life. Essentially, a pod is an expansion of one’s household to include one or a few other households, creating a small group of people who interact with one another as normal—hugging, sharing meals, hanging out indoors—while limiting contact with anyone outside the pod. The idea is that if one pod member somehow becomes infected, they’re only likely to spread it to a small group of others. It’s the next best thing to total isolation.
Biden and Harris aren’t really eligible for a pod under the strictest definition: They work outside their homes, occasionally go maskless in indoor spaces, and engage in regular travel. Their bubbles, if they had them, have technically popped. If I were evaluating the candidates’ lifestyles as potential additions to my own pod, I’d consider them too high-risk (to say nothing of my relative desire to make Joe Biden one of my few social contacts for the next who-knows-how-many months).
But it’s still worth wondering whether Biden and Harris will ever clasp hands and talk at close range without masks, especially if they continue to do in-person events together. Or will they continue to treat each other as if they could both possibly be infected, with all the precautions they’d use with strangers? The latter protocol is safer, certainly, but the former could be more “fun” and make the candidates appear less stilted to voters. As it is, every awkward pass of a microphone will serve to remind us that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, though maybe they figure it’s good for voters to be reminded of that and are participating in some deliberate hygiene theater.
Neither Biden’s nor Harris’ communications teams responded to requests for comment about the COVID-related precautions the campaign is taking, so I don’t know for sure which route the candidates have selected. Since Biden and Harris called themselves “extended family” on Wednesday—in addition to sharing a microphone and breathing maskless in each other’s close proximity—it seems like they might indeed be pod bonded. (I’ve decided that “pod bonded” is to social contacts what “fluid bonded” is to sex partners. Stay with me, here!) Then again, Biden said in late July that he’d never been tested for COVID-19. If true, that seems like an increasingly irresponsible strategy for a 77-year-old who’s trying to be president in less than six months. And if he wants to pod with Harris, they should both get tested on a regular basis to avoid inadvertently infecting each other, especially considering their higher-risk lifestyles.
Of course, if Biden and Harris do pod up, they run a greater risk of a dual infection. This could be one case in which pod absolutely won’t save America: Not to get too morbid, but if one member of the ticket ended up with COVID-19 and passed the virus to the other, the Democratic Party could find itself weeks away from the election without any healthy, ready-to-lead candidates in the race. For the safety of the ticket, Biden and Harris should make like an extreme version of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (or, I guess, a president and vice president) and keep their distance to preserve the continuity of their work should one fall ill. As a bonus, if they spend the rest of the campaign cycle apart, they might not be entirely sick of each other come November.
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