COVID-19 looms large over Pence, Harris vice presidential debate

New health precautions are being implemented to keep the candidates safe.

October 7, 2020, 2:22 PM

In the days since the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, last week, the coronavirus has become even more of a central campaign issue than ever as the vice presidential candidates prepare for their only debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wednesday night and their teams engaged in a last-minute debate over dividing the stage with plexiglass.

Not only are some of the debate's safety measures a matter of contention between the two camps, but the way the Trump administration has handled the pandemic is also likely to be central to the debate as the White House deals with a cluster of COVID-19 cases, including the infection of President Donald Trump himself, amid a campaign and administration that have downplayed the virus and flouted the advice of health experts.

In response to COVID-19 concerns from Kamala Harris’ team, the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed to add additional safety precautions when the candidates meet on stage.

PHOTO: Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at a drive-in campaign event in Las Vegas, Oct. 2, 2020.
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at a drive-in campaign event in Las Vegas, Oct. 2, 2020.
David Becker/Reuters

As was the case at the presidential debate, there will be no handshakes between the candidates, and while the commission said there would also be plexiglass separating Harris, Pence and Page, Vice President Mike Pence's campaign initially objected to using it.

In a statement to ABC News, Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller, whose husband Stephen Miller has tested positive for COVID-19, said, "If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it."

But after a senior administration official in Pence’s office told ABC News Tuesday that there had been no formal agreement about the plexiglass and that while Harris and Page could use it, Pence didn't want to, an aide to the vice president told ABC News that "if such a barrier’s critical for the Harris team, then we’re not going to let it stand in the way of having that conversation about the future of our country tomorrow."

Symone Sanders, senior adviser for the Biden Campaign, told ABC News on Wednesday that there will be plexiglass on the debate stage after all.

Pence and Harris will also be seated 12-feet and 3-inches away from each other and from the debate moderator, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page.

Though Harris, Pence and Page will not wear masks on stage, everyone else in the debate hall will be required to wear one. Anyone who takes their mask off will be escorted out, according to the rules.

During the presidential debate in Cleveland, members of the Trump family were seen sitting in the audience without masks, even after being asked to put them on.

Harris and Pence will be tested prior to the debate, according to the commission, which is a change from the presidential debate when the campaigns were responsible for testing their candidates and traveling parties.

“They’ve got to wear a mask, and if they take their mask off they're gonna be escorted out, and I don't care who they are, they'll be escorted out,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, in an interview with ABC News.

PHOTO:President Donald Trump, center, stands with Judge Amy Coney Barrett as they arrive for a news conference to announce Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump, center, stands with Judge Amy Coney Barrett as they arrive for a news conference to announce Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP

The vice president has tested negative each day since Friday, and his White House physician has cleared him from having to quarantine, citing that he is not a “close contact” with anyone who’s tested positive, including Trump.

But Pence was present at the Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 26 when Trump announced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Thirteen of the attendees have since tested positive for COVID-19. He was also in the Oval Office with Trump the morning of his debate, just days before the president tested positive.

Harris tested negative for COVID-19 Wednesday after being screened in Salt Lake City, where she has been gearing up for the debate, the campaign told ABC News.

On Wednesday night, Trump's stance on masks, his decision to restart large campaign rallies that pack thousands together with no opportunity to socially distance and his admission to Bob Woodward that he downplayed the severity of the coronavirus will likely be brought up, with the spate of White House coronavirus cases giving Harris new ammunition to claim the administration hasn't taken the pandemic seriously enough.

Pence may also be asked to answer for Trump's words, comparing COVID-19 to the flu as recently as Tuesday and previously saying the virus would just "disappear."

Harris has previously said Trump has shown "a reckless disregard for the wellbeing of the American people" by failing to contain the outbreak and is likely to continue that line of attack.

"Even now, some eight months into this crisis, Donald Trump still won’t take responsibility. He still won’t act," Harris said in a speech on Aug. 27.

On a press call with reporters on Wednesday, the Biden-Harris campaign said that Harris will focus on speaking to the American people and highlighting what they describe as the “failed leadership” of the Trump administration and bungling the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has been advising Pence, confirmed to "Fox & Friends" on Wednesday that while Pence will face questions on COVID-19, he will focus on how the administration took quick action.

"The strategy is pretty simple. I call it R&R. Talk about the recovery. Talk about ten and a half million new jobs over the last four months," said Walker, who also helped Pence prepare for the last vice-presidential debate against Sen. Tim Kaine in 2016.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang participate in the third Democratic primary debate hosted by ABC News in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang participate in the third Democratic primary debate hosted by ABC News in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.
Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television

Both vice presidential nominees are seasoned debaters. During her ill-fated presidential primary bid, Harris participated in several debates and made headlines for her zingers, including a clash with Biden over busing to integrate schools. Expectations are high for her in the matchup against Pence, who hasn’t participated in a debate since 2016 but has held his own ground in the past.

“Vice President Mike Pence will be well-prepared and ready for Kamala Harris, who has shown she’s experienced and good on the debate stage," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told ABC News.

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi -- who was also a member of the president's impeachment defense team -- was tasked to play the role of Harris in mock debate sessions with the vice president before he left for Utah.

"Kamala was my colleague when we were attorneys general together and she's very smart, she's a seasoned debater, you know she's career prosecutor so prosecutors can debate and they can debate well," Bondi told Fox News.

In an interview with Hillary Clinton for her podcast “You and me Both,” Harris spoke about the challenges of preparing the debate, including her expectation that Pence could offer “a series of untruths” from the debate stage.

“I don't necessarily want to be the fact checker,” Harris said in the interview. “At the same time, you know, depending on how far he goes with whatever he does, he’s going to have to be accountable for what he says.”

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events