Medical Examiner

Mike Pence and Kamala Harris Should Not Debate in Person

As of now, they’ll be more than 12 feet apart with plexiglass.

Side-by-side photos of Pence and Harris speaking into microphones
They could be like this instead! Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images and Sara D. Davis/Getty Images.

COVID-19 continues to sweep through the Trump administration and the GOP more broadly; as of Monday afternoon, more than a dozen people in Trump’s circle have tested positive. Despite all of this, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence are still scheduled to sit more than 12 feet apart from each other, potentially maskless, for an hour and a half, debating.

Twelve feet is a concession to the Biden campaign (well, really, to public health), an increase from the original plan of just 7 feet that was made after Trump was confirmed to have the coronavirus on Friday. As of today, the plan is that there will also be plexiglass between the candidates, and between them and the moderator. (“If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” Pence spokesperson Katie Miller told Politico.) Instead of this endless escalation of safety precautions, though, Harris and Pence should just not debate in person.

Safetywise, yes, Pence has tested negative a few times for the virus. But negative tests, especially soon after exposure, are not a guarantee that you don’t have it. That’s why Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say that close contacts of those infected with COVID should stay home for 14 days regardless of whether they’ve tested negative. And it’s not just Trump whom Pence may have been in close contact with. Pence attended Amy Coney Barret’s nomination party on Sept. 26, a potential superspreader event. I suppose it’s technically possible he wasn’t in close contact with anyone who has now tested positive, as his doctor is saying—but, as new information about who is infected comes out by the hour, how would they be sure at this point? Counting out 14 days from that event, he should stay home until Saturday, at least. And if you are quarantining, you’re not allowed to be even 12 feet away from another human being. You definitely shouldn’t be together indoors.

Pence really doesn’t seem like a good person to make an exception for on the quarantine rule. The Trump campaign already botched best practices at the last debate. Guests showed up at the Cleveland Clinic’s atrium too late for Trump, and whomever he was traveling with, to get tested, so everyone had to rely on the honor system that they had recently tested negative. We still don’t know, exactly, when Trump’s last negative test was. Many among the Trump crew watched the debate maskless. After Trump tested positive, his camp did not reach out to the Biden campaign to let it know, using the excuse that “we were never near them.” (That didn’t fly with virus experts.)

Even if Pence is operating in complete good faith, anything the hosts could do to make the event safer would make it just that: safer. There’s no such thing as gathering with zero risk in a pandemic, especially when COVID-19 is making its way around your professional circle. Having the VP debates in person hardly counts as an essential activity. In fact, with the president ill with COVID, it is sort of the opposite of an essential activity—the vice president and the potential vice president should be kept as safe as possible.

Plus: What is anyone hoping to learn that could not be learned from a virtual debate? They’re already going to be 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass. Pence and Harris will probably be shown in split screen for much of the 90 minutes anyway, save for a shot or two of them walking onstage and exiting the stage, during which they will not be allowed to shake hands or get close to each other anyway. Not only are we all used to remote events by now, but it is very common for people who share a screen on a television to not be in the same location! The debate commission could even arrange their home studio setups so it looks like they’re on the same stage. It could try its hand at designing something room-rater worthy. There are many possibilities. In any case: We have the technology to make this much lower risk.

The debate organizers should make this happen. Harris should insist on it. (Really, Pence should say he can’t show up—if only we could count on that.) But Harris should insist on it because she’s not the only one who’s going to be at risk from Pence and whomever he’s traveling with. It’s anyone who shows up with her. It’s the moderator. It’s the small crowd in attendance. And it’s not just people who attend the debate, either willingly or because it’s in their job description. It’s all the people they in turn interact with: the grocery store clerks, their children, the teachers at their children’s school. Pence and Harris could be 30 feet apart wearing hazmat suits, but it would be better if they modeled what millions of Americans have done in the past seven months and, so to speak, hopped on Zoom.