WASHINGTON — The Trump and Biden campaigns remained at odds on the eve of the vice-presidential debate Wednesday, with no clear resolution to a standoff over where barriers should be placed onstage to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Mike Pence

Vice President Mike Pence is requesting that no Plexiglas dividers be placed on his side of the stage at Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate with Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris. Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Vice President Mike Pence is requesting that no Plexiglas dividers be placed on his side of the stage at Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate, after an announcement Monday by the Commission on Presidential Debates that dividers had been agreed to as a safety measure.

Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, said the vice president’s team does not view Plexiglas dividers as medically necessary, given other safety measures at the debate, including a 12-foot distance between Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and daily testing of both candidates.

The commission and the Biden campaign both said Tuesday they understood that the Pence team was in agreement with the notion of Plexiglas barriers. But the Pence team suggested they did not want any such dividers around the vice president, regardless of what Harris does.

“If she wants it, she’s more than welcome to surround herself with Plexiglas if that makes her feel more comfortable,” Short said. “It’s not needed.”

The standoff left an aura of uncertainty just one day before the campaign’s only vice-presidential debate, as politics collided with the pandemic in a race feeling the aftershocks of President Trump’s hospitalization for the coronavirus.

The dispute played into a larger clash of messages between the Trump and Biden campaigns. Trump argues that the coronavirus has largely been conquered and there is no need for burdensome restrictions; Biden’s campaign has focused sharply on a critique of the president’s handling of the pandemic. For both sides, plexiglass dividers could be seen as a symbol of the continued threat posed by the virus.

” ‘It’s not needed’ is the latest iteration of ‘it is what it is,’ another example of the Trump administration’s abdication of leadership when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in response to Short’s comment.

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The vice president’s team suggested they did not want any clear dividers around the vice president, regardless of what his opponent, Sen. Kamala Harris, does regarding such barriers, at their debate. Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

In the debate itself, Biden advisers said they expect Harris to press Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, on the administration’s response to COVID-19.

But they also say that the debate is likely to be more about Biden and Trump than their running mates, and that Harris’s primary focus will be casting Biden as a more capable and empathetic leader when it comes to the coronavirus and other issues, including the economy and racial justice.

Other safety measures were also the subject of extended negotiation. Both campaigns agreed last week to extend the distance between Pence and Harris from about seven feet to 12 feet.

The Trump campaign has also resisted a request by the Biden campaign that both candidates stand during the debate. The current plan has them sitting at separate tables.

The Biden camp has sought to stress that it is following the science, including the guidelines provided by the Cleveland Clinic, the medical adviser to the debates.

“The Cleveland Clinic is responsible for the safety of the debate. We will abide by their determination on safety measures,” said a Biden campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations. “All questions about the adequacy of the safety measures should be addressed to the Cleveland Clinic.”

The Cleveland Clinic has so far declined to disclose its recommendations to the debate participants, beyond saying its guidelines “are based on scientific data, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical advice.”

“Any questions regarding the recommendations and requirements, including their implementation and enforcement, should be directed to the CPD,” the clinic said in an unsigned statement Tuesday.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has promised better enforcement of the mask mandate in the debate hall, which was disregarded by members of Trump’s family at the first debate.

Short said an epidemiologist at the University of Utah, which is hosting the event, said in a private meeting that the use of plexiglass was not necessary. A spokesman for the University of Utah said the institution was not able to comment on the private discussions.

Both campaigns are aware that the outcome of the negotiations could create a precedent for the remaining presidential debates between Biden and Trump. Biden and Trump are scheduled to meet again on Oct. 15 and 22 for two more debates.

Trump, who was released from the hospital Monday, said Tuesday that he intended to take part in the next debate, tweeting, “I am looking forward to the debate on the evening of Thursday, October 15 in Miami. It will be great!”

Biden’s aides have said the former vice president will attend if Trump is medically cleared and the debate follows public health guidelines.

Pence attended a White House Rose Garden ceremony with several people who have since tested positive on Sept. 26, 11 days before Wednesday’s debate. He sat immediately in front of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, three rows in front of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and five seats away from Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

All three have since tested positive for the virus, along with at least 10 others who had contact with the White House or the Trump campaign.

Pence’s team contends that he did not come close to anyone who contracted the virus.

“Under the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, the Vice President is not considered a close contact with any individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus, including President Donald Trump,” Jesse Schonau, physician to the vice president, wrote in a letter Friday. “Vice President Pence does not need to quarantine.”

CDC Director Robert Redfield in a letter Tuesday echoed that finding, based on Schonau’s description of Pence’s interactions.

“The CDC concludes from a public health standpoint, it is safe for the Vice President to participate in the upcoming Vice-Presidential debate,” Redfield wrote.

Katie Miller, a Pence spokeswoman, said he was last in the Oval Office two days before Trump’s test, and was not within six feet of the president for more than 15 minutes.

A Pence adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the information, said none of Pence’s aides who will attend the debate in Salt Lake City have recently been near anyone testing positive. “There is not one person on our staff who according to CDC guidelines would be a close contact of anyone who tested positive,” the adviser said.

The University of Utah has campus guidelines that follow federal health standards. Any faculty member who has “close contact” with someone who tests positive or has coronavirus symptoms is asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and self-monitor for symptoms.

Close contact is defined by the university as coming within six feet of an infected individual, starting from two days before the onset of the illness – or for an asymptomatic person, starting two days before a positive test.

“It would be the expectation that anyone (including visitors) on our campus would be following our fall semester guidelines,” said Chris Nelson, a spokesman for the University of Utah, in a statement over text message.

Negotiations over specifics of the Oct. 15 presidential debate have not yet begun, say people involved in the planning. The safety precautions are likely to hinge on the medical condition of the president.

“Assuming the president is negative, we are happy to have him debate on Oct. 15,” said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, who had to isolate for 18 days earlier this year after contracting the coronavirus. He said he waited until two consecutive negative tests before interacting with people again.

“I can’t imagine a scenario under which the president or anyone would not be in quarantine if they are still positive,” Suarez said.

The CDC does not offer fixed guidance for when covid-19 patients can leave isolation.

“For most persons with COVID-19 illness, isolation and precautions can generally be discontinued 10 days after symptom onset and resolution of fever for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medications, and with improvement of other symptoms,” the agency’s website says.

But those with more severe illness may need to wait longer. “A limited number of persons with severe illness may produce replication-competant virus beyond 10 days that may warrant extending duration of isolation and precautions for up to 20 days after symptom onset,” the agency advises.

Trump has exhibited symptoms including fever and fatigue and brief drops in oxygen levels, according to his medical staff, but the severity of his illness remains unclear.


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