Tonight’s vice presidential debate should not take place—at least not in any in-person format.
That the White House and the Trump campaign remain willing, even eager, to participate in potentially hazardous gatherings is disappointing and unforgivable, though not at all surprising. This is, after all, the very attitude that landed the president himself in the hospital and turned the White House into an infectious disease hot zone.
That the Biden campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates is playing ball with this reckless machismo, however, is a surprise. It is also a massive failure of leadership. It’s a failure on the part of the commission, because the commission should not be convening in-person gatherings that involve people who should be in isolation—to wit, Vice President Mike Pence. And it’s a failure on the part of the Biden campaign because the campaign should not be letting itself be taunted into irresponsible behavior by its opponents. Real leadership when the commission is plainly unable to host a safe debate would be to not show up for an unsafe one.
The setup for tonight’s debate in Utah might look safe at first glance. The candidates will be seated 12 feet apart—in recognition of social distancing recommendations—and the commission has set up plexiglass barriers between their chairs, shields to which the Pence team vigorously objected.
Good morning from inside the site of tonight’s Pence-Harris vice presidential debate. pic.twitter.com/MIKbhO4u8w
— Geoff Bennett (@GeoffRBennett) October 7, 2020
That may well prove adequate. But it may not. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can be transmitted in a number of ways. Most of the time, the coronavirus is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, throwing out infectious droplets into the air. But research indicates that the pathogen can also spread through smaller, aerosolized particles—which can be emitted not just through coughing, but through loud talking or even breathing, and may drift around and accumulate in the air of an enclosed space over time.
That’s why gatherings in enclosed spaces are risky. And while plexiglass can help protect from heavier droplets, it will do little against particles floating through the air. Pence’s various negative coronavirus tests are also not a silver bullet, given his work environment: So far, according to the New York Times, 23 people—including the president—have tested positive for the coronavirus as part of the White House outbreak. There is no indication that the outbreak has been curbed, especially now that Trump has returned to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center.
Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released a letter on Oct. 6 stating that “the CDC concludes from a public health standpoint, it is safe for the Vice President to participate in the upcoming Vice-Presidential debate.” But as the virologist Angela Rasmussen pointed out, this violates the CDC’s own guidance on the coronavirus, which recommends that people who have had close contact with a COVID-19 patient should quarantine for 14 days. As Rasmussen notes, Pence himself has said publicly that he met with Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 29, when Trump may have already been infectious. So according to the CDC, Pence should be quarantining until Oct. 13, a full week from the debate—and that’s assuming he has not since had contact with anyone else in the White House who has tested positive.
There is just no way around the fact that an in-person debate is an irresponsible risk. Like many irresponsible risks, the risk-takers may well get away with it. But as the White House struggles with an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, it is not safe for the person first in line to the president, and the woman in the running to succeed him, to be together in the same room as each other and lots of other people.
The appearance of safety may be only an appearance. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote recently in the Atlantic, “this disease stalks us indoors”—likely because of accumulations of virus particles in currents of air within closed rooms. Outside, by contrast, the natural circulation of air means that the virus is more likely to be whisked away on the breeze or to dissipate over space. With this in mind, the most important safety consideration within the debate hall might actually be not the plexiglass but the ventilation in the room: How does the air move around, and is it cycled in and out to mitigate the amount of virus that could be inhaled by a candidate? A plexiglass shield might protect the candidates from droplets expelled from each others’ mouths—especially if the candidates are not wearing masks, as it seems, absurdly, they will not—but it will not protect them from virus particles that might be circulating throughout the debate hall. As epidemiologist Ellie Murray told the New York Times, “Those plexiglass barriers are really only going to be effective if the vice president or Kamala Harris are spitting at each other.”
The potential dangers of three people sitting relatively close together, inside, talking loudly for a long period of time before an audience in the midst of the pandemic, would be concerning under any circumstances. They are particularly concerning given that the current president and his challenger are both over 70 years old, heightening the likelihood that Pence or Harris really might need to assume the duties of the presidency at any minute.
They are even more concerning given that President Trump is already sick with COVID-19 and that an outbreak is currently tearing through the White House. It is a medical fact that the president—as a 74-year-old, obese man—is at serious risk from the virus, and while the White House has been less than forthcoming about the course of his illness, there are reasons to be concerned. There is thus a premium on Pence remaining in good health so that he can assume the duties of the presidency relatively seamlessly if Trump’s condition worsens. This is important as a matter of constitutional stability: If both Trump and Pence were to become seriously ill, constitutional questions over the existing line of succession—which places Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi second in line to the presidency—could plunge the nation into what Jack Goldsmith and Ben Miller-Gootnick have described as a “presidential succession nightmare.”
Biden is not currently ill, but he too needs to be extremely careful. That care does not include sending his running mate to a debate with a person who works in a known hot spot and has not followed isolation guidelines following exposure to at least one person known to be infected with the virus.
And the commission? Yes, it’s the commission on presidential debates, not the commission on canceling presidential debates. But the other convening entities that have sought to get away with holding safe versions of their usual programming—think of sports leagues—have generally aided the spread of the disease. That’s bad enough when the affected population does not involve people whose illness could destabilize the nation. It’s unacceptable when you’re talking about the national leadership of the country and those vying to replace them.
So just cancel the debate. Or hold it over Zoom. It’s not worth the risk to do it in person. The people auditioning to lead the country for the next four years could demonstrate their fitness for the job by recognizing that and modeling safe behavior.