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The fight over plexiglass dividers at the VP debate is a microcosm of Pence’s coronavirus failures

From the start, the VP has put optics over public health.

Newly installed plexiglass barriers are shown onstage ahead of the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, Vice President Mike Pence’s team finally agreed to allow a plexiglass barrier to be placed near Pence when he debates with Kamala Harris in Utah on Wednesday evening. Frankly, it’s ridiculous but not at all surprising that Pence — chair of the White House coronavirus task force — resisted such a commonsense health precaution in the first place.

The dispute over the barriers started when the Biden-Harris campaign requested the Commission on Presidential Debates implement additional safety precautions and the Trump-Pence campaign resisted. The kerfuffle added some needless uncertainty to the debate prep, but it’s also emblematic of the Trump administration’s coronavirus failures, which will certainly be a central topic of conversation on Wednesday night. It highlights the Biden-Harris strategy of painting themselves as the responsible candidates who would take a safety-conscious approach to running the country in the middle of a public health crisis.

The Cleveland Clinic is advising the commission on health safety for the debates and has recommended the installation of plexiglass dividers to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which Pence has likely been exposed to (perhaps repeatedly) in recent days. This echoes similar guidance issued by the World Health Organization and the US’s public health and workplace safety agencies, recommending the use of clear plastic or glass barriers to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.

But Pence’s team pretended there’s no good reason for them.

“We have yet to hear medical evidence what the plexiglass is for,” Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short told CNN earlier this week.

Even after agreeing to them, Short continued to mock Harris for requesting dividers on Wednesday morning:

Pence’s team likely wants to avoid a repeat of the optics of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s recent debate with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, where plexiglass dividers served as a symbol of the coronavirus failures of the Trump administration and its enablers.

But, as Harris’s camp argued, safety should be the top priority, especially considering the fact that there are now 32 coronavirus cases linked to the White House — all of them diagnosed since the September 26 Amy Coney Barrett event in the Rose Garden that Pence attended.

“Senator Harris will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned,” said Sabrina Singh, a Harris campaign spokeswoman, according to CNN. “If the Trump administration’s war on masks has now become a war on safety shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their Covid response is a failure.”

Pence has been swimming in a sea of coronavirus for weeks but is carrying on as if he’s immune to it

At the September 26 Rose Garden event, a mask-less Pence sat directly in front of Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who has since tested positive for coronavirus, and close to first lady Melania and former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, both of whom have also tested positive.

That wasn’t even Pence’s only possible exposure to the coronavirus on that day. Before the ACB event, Pence spent time at an absolutely packed prayer march with Pastor Greg Lauri, who also has tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, news broke that White House adviser Stephen Miller tested positive for the coronavirus. Miller’s wife, Katie Miller, is Pence’s communications director and traveled to Utah with him for the debate.

While Katie Miller has already had Covid-19, the news serves as a stark reminder of why, in a sane world, Pence’s repeated exposures to the virus would prompt him to quarantine. Stephen Miller says he self-isolated at home for the last five days and tested negative each day, only to finally have a positive test on Tuesday. But predictably, the vice president’s physician produced a note on Tuesday saying that since Pence’s most recently coronavirus test was negative, he’s free to debate.

That’s not really how it works. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, explained to Rolling Stone why a negative test isn’t a sufficient reason for someone like Pence to not quarantine.

“The reason for that 14-day quarantine if you’re exposed to even one confirmed case, much less [what Pence has been exposed to], is the fact that tests are not 100 percent reliable,” Rasmussen said. “We just saw that as [Press Secretary] Kaleigh McEnany has now tested positive after several days of negative tests. This virus has a 14-day incubation period, which means that you can still be infected without the virus being detectable by a test.”

Pence, however, has long flouted public health common sense for the sake of political expedience.

Pence has been just as irresponsible as Trump but with a more presidential tone

As head of the White House coronavirus task force, Pence has consistently misled the public while flouting mask mandates even when he’s visited hospitals. A very recent example of this came on Saturday, when Pence and his wife Karen talked to reporters without wearing masks even as Trump was hospitalized with coronavirus.

Pence’s line for six months now has been that the administration has done a great job and the end of the coronavirus pandemic is right around the corner. Some people may have bought that in April and May, but it’s become a harder sell as new daily case numbers have risen back up over 40,000 in recent weeks and the seven-day average of daily deaths remains above 500.

It will be hard for Pence to defend this record during Wednesday’s debate — especially while he’s encased behind plexiglass that serves as a physical embodiment of how his administration and task force has failed to keep America safe.

The last debate was a coronavirus debacle

The plexiglass controversy has swirled along with questions about if Trump was infectious with the coronavirus during last Tuesday’s presidential debate.

The White House has refused to say when Trump’s last negative coronavirus test occurred, which raises questions about whether Trump wasn’t being tested nearly as often as the White House wanted the public to believe he was or whether he may have had the coronavirus before he publicly announced his diagnosis early last Friday morning.

If that’s the case, it’s possible that Trump exposed Joe Biden to the coronavirus during the first presidential debate last Tuesday. It’s clear that the virus was in attendance that night in Cleveland — in addition to the White House cluster, at least 11 positive coronavirus tests have been traced to organizers of the first presidential debate or media members who covered it. Biden himself has repeatedly tested negative, but per CDC guidelines should still be self-isolating for another week. (He, however, is resuming campaign activities and plans to travel to Nevada on Friday.)

The Trump children made a big show of sitting in the debate hall last Tuesday without wearing masks. Debate officials have indicated that sort of behavior won’t be tolerated for the vice presidential debate. And Harris and Pence will stand 13 feet apart from each other — slightly further than Biden and Trump did.

Given the precarious nature of Trump’s health, the responsible thing for Pence to do would be to limit his travel until he’s sure that he won’t have to take over presidential duties. But with Trump’s reelection campaign on the ropes and in even worse shape than it was last week because of the White House coronavirus debacle, the vice president apparently feels the need to project a sense of normalcy.

But that, in a nutshell, embodies the White House’s coronavirus failures. Pence has spent seven months telling the public that everything is fine when it’s clearly not, and as a result, he’ll have to debate behind a sheet of plastic to protect the public from himself.

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