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Pence, Harris spar over plexiglass barriers at VP debate

Harris had requested the plastic barrier as a safety measure after President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
/ Source: NBC News

Vice President Mike Pence has been at odds with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., over the use of plexiglass barriers at Wednesday's vice presidential debate — but he appeared to have backed off this first debate battle.

A Pence aide says they’ve inquired with the debate commission as to a medical or scientific need for a barrier are waiting for an answer.

But Pence spokesman Devin O’Malley said that “most importantly, the vice president is looking forward to debating" and if such a barrier is a need for the Harris team, they won’t object.

According to a White House official, Pence did not want a plexiglass divider on his side of the stage for the Salt Lake City, Utah, debate. Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, had requested the plastic barrier as a safety measure because of Pence’s potential exposure to President Donald Trump, who tested positive for Covid-19 overnight Thursday.

But two plexiglass barriers had been installed on the debate stage: one next to the desk where Vice President Mike Pence will sit at and one next to Sen. Kamala Harris’ desk.

More than a dozen people tied to Trump have since tested positive for the virus, though Pence has reported multiple negative test results.

The vice president’s physician released a letter Tuesday stating Pence was not considered a close contact of Trump, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as a person who spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of a known positive case. Pence’s doctor concluded he was "encouraged to go about his normal activities and does not need to quarantine."

The Commission on Presidential Debates approved Harris’ request but did not offer any details on where the plexiglass would be placed on the stage.

Pence’s team argued the request is excessive, given that CDC guidelines currently recommend that kind of divider when six feet of distance is not possible. Both candidates will be separated by about 12 feet of space, increased from the original seven feet as a health precaution.

The vice president’s aides feel strongly that the distance, plus requirements for negative coronavirus test results on the day of the debate, are sufficient, a White House official said.

After Harris made the original request, Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller replied: "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it." Miller herself tested positive for the virus in May. Pence is the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which has been heavily scrutinized in recent months over its response to the pandemic.

Attendees at Wednesday’s debate will be asked to wear masks in the hall. That was the original expectation at the first general election debate between Trump and Joe Biden in Cleveland, but many invited guests on the Republican side promptly removed their face coverings after taking their seats.

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The next two presidential debates are set for Oct. 15 and 22 in Miami and Nashville respectively. Trump and his re-election campaign have signaled the president intends to participate in person, even though he may still be recovering from the virus.

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