Medical Examiner

It Was Very Stupid to Hold That Debate in Person

Harris and Pence are seen separated by glass onstage, with Susan Page watching.
Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence are seen at the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Robyn Beck/Getty Images

What does a debate held during a White House coronavirus outbreak, in a country where case counts are at a record high, and with one candidate who should be in quarantine, look like? Unfortunately, it looks an awful lot like a regular debate.

On Wednesday night, Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence—the latter of whom had been recently hanging out with multiple Republican officials who have since tested positive for COVID-19—sat a little more than 12 feet apart. Thanks to camera angles, the setting didn’t seem notably spacious. Next to each candidate was a panel of plexiglass, not too tall and not too wide, with a rounded top. In some of the low, wide shots, viewers could see Pence and Harris looking at each other through the glass, which was a little strange. There was an audience—the people watching in person were masked, but they were, nonetheless, in attendance. On TV, most of the debate was shown as debates generally are shown, with the candidates in a split-screen view. In other words, the limited and insufficient precautions were practically invisible for the viewers.

It all looked pretty tasteful. Under the circumstances, this was not only gross but also dangerous.

An in-person debate held during a pandemic should be visually unnerving. When she saw the plexiglass panels earlier Wednesday, Linsey Marr, a leading expert on how viral-laden particles travel through the air “laughed outright,” the New York Times reported. She expected the candidates to be sitting in some kind of enclosure—not that this would have been advisable, either. A debate with a candidate who should be in quarantine should never have taken place with both candidates sharing a stage. The presence of a live audience, on top of that, seems inconceivably pointless and risky. As epidemiologist Saskia Popescu told Rolling Stone, even attempting to offer guidance on making such an in-person debate safer would be “like me giving guidance on how to drink and drive safer.”

Watching the thing take place, more or less as planned, was like sitting in the back seat of a car that you know shouldn’t be on the road. The stage itself was a denial of reality. We were left to look for clues—was that blood in Pence’s eye?—to determine to what exact extent everyone in that room was at risk. We are left to wonder who will be infected next in service of taking a risk that did not need to be taken. The debate was part of an extended downplaying of the virus, in the White House, in America, and now by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

It would have been so simple to do this on two separate sets. The commission refused that option. Doing a virtual debate would have been one of the simpler precautions to take, like mask mandates, one of the simpler ways to signal to the country that this pandemic is serious and needs to be taken seriously. But, of course, at Donald Trump’s White House, in his America, and on his vice president’s debate stage, it isn’t.

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