Growing White House coronavirus infections highlight debate safety concerns
The pressure to take additional safety precautions at Wednesday’s vice presidential debate or cancel it altogether is growing as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s positive coronavirus test raises the specter that others in President Trump’s orbit may be infected — and contagious — despite negative tests.
The news that McEnany tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday after a number of negative tests comes as Vice President Pence prepares to travel to Salt Lake City for Wednesday’s debate against Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. Pence has thus far tested negative for the coronavirus multiple times, but he was seated in the front row of the White House event that has now generated at least nine coronavirus infections.
As the number of positive cases coming out of the White House steadily increases, experts and strategists are questioning the wisdom of putting two candidates in an enclosed space for several hours.
“It’s a reminder for some individuals that their symptoms for COVID-19 may not start until between two or fourteen days after they were originally exposed,” said Alvin Tran, a public health professor at the University of New Haven.
Wednesday’s debate will take place 11 days after the White House event introducing Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett where it is believed the spread of the disease among top Republicans began and less than a week after Trump aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the virus after traveling with the president and other officials.
The Commission on Presidential Debates approved plans Monday to place plexiglass barriers between the two candidates and the moderator at Wednesday’s debate — which Politico reported Pence opposed — a move Tran had said earlier he would “love to see.”
“That would make me feel a little bit [better] for both candidates,” he said.
But strategists and medical experts argue that spacing between the candidates on the stage only does so much to stop the spread in a space where a production crew, campaign staff and a small live audience will be present.
“Any debate is about more than just the two people that who are there [to debate],” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “You have the moderators. You have the camera people. You have stage directors. You have Secret Service. Yes, they’ll all be wearing masks, but it’s uncertain.”
“How do you from 20 feet away say, ‘Mr. Vice President, you need to walk this way, and don’t come near me,’” he added.
Additionally, Heye noted that it would be difficult for Pence to isolate himself days before the debate without the presence of the Secret Service and staff.
“He can’t just completely isolate himself and walk in unaccompanied, just like Trump wasn’t in a car by himself,” he said, referring to Trump’s drive-by to wave at supporters in front of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday.
“Because Pence can’t do that, for the safety of other people, we should delay this a week or 10 days until we know that he can safely do it,” Heye said.
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday said the coronavirus can spread through “airborne transmission” to people who are more than six feet away under certain conditions — those conditions being indoor, poorly ventilated spaces.
A number of precautionary measures have been in place in down-ballot debates in recent days, notably Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison bringing plexiglass to his debate against Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) over the weekend.
Graham tested negative after learning that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tested positive for the virus.
Tran said a virtual debate would ultimately be the safest option given the circumstances of the pandemic.
“If I could organize this event, I would prefer them to debate digitally with each other rather than being in the same room,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are overly cautious … given that there’s so much at stake right then and now.”
A proposal to delay or hold the vice presidential debate — or next week’s second presidential debate — virtually could pose optics risks for both campaigns, which have taken very different approaches to handling the pandemic.
Trump and Pence have actively campaigned in recent months, holding large-scale rallies, where masks were few and far between among attendees. The president and vice president have also been seen frequently without masks on.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, on the other hand, has stuck with either virtual or small-scale events. Candidates and staff are rarely seen without masks on at in-person events.
“From a political perspective, it would feed into the narrative that the Democrats are weak if they were to say that they’re not willing to debate given the circumstances with the vice president,” said Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist and principal at Group Gordon.
“The Democrats need to be committed to the debate, but obviously they also need to make sure that the commission is enforcing all of the guidelines and protections,” he added.
The Biden and Trump campaigns haven’t shown any signs of backing out of either debate or proposed that they should be held virtually.
Biden himself said on Monday that he was willing to go ahead with next week’s presidential debate on Oct. 15 if all of the precautions were taken following Trump’s diagnosis.
“Listen to the science. If scientists say that it’s safe … then I think that’s fine,” Biden told reporters. “I’ll do whatever the experts say is appropriate for me to do.”