The nation’s political divide is no longer just a metaphor.
Aides to Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday criticized plans for their candidate to sit behind plexiglass dividers at this week’s vice-presidential debate, rejecting a safety measure that the organizers said would help prevent any viral transmission between Mr. Pence and his Democratic opponent, Senator Kamala Harris.
The complaint from Mr. Pence’s staff — which was quickly brushed aside by Ms. Harris’s team — was another salvo in the fraught negotiations over the debate scheduled for Wednesday in Salt Lake City, an event that was briefly in doubt after President Trump’s announcement that he had contracted the coronavirus.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which oversees safety protocols in consultation with officials from the Cleveland Clinic, said on Monday that it would use plexiglass dividers at the event with Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence, along with mandating that the candidates be seated 12 feet 3 inches apart.
But Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, said on Tuesday that he did not want the vice president to appear on national television behind the plastic barriers.
“We don’t think it’s needed,” Mr. Short said. “There’s no science to support it. The tables are 12 feet apart, and each participant is tested. It’s important for the American people that the debate go forward.” Referring to Ms. Harris, he said: “If she’s more comfortable with plexiglass, then that’s fine.”
The Biden campaign said that eliminating dividers would risk the health of those in the debate hall.
“Senator Harris will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned,” Sabrina Singh, a Harris spokeswoman, said. “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.”
Mr. Pence has tested negative for the virus several times in recent days, according to his aides, though the vice president had interacted frequently with numerous White House advisers who have since tested positive.
Mr. Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, also claimed that an epidemiologist at the University of Utah, which is hosting the debate, “told us that there’s no scientific reason for the plexiglass.” In fact, the Cleveland Clinic is overseeing health protocols at the debate.
Ground rules for debates are often the subject of delicate negotiations between the campaigns and the debate commission, and it is not unusual for issues to flare up in the hours before the event.
Mr. Pence’s dismissal of a safety measure, however, is notable in light of the myriad health concerns around staging an indoor event when the president and a significant number of his senior advisers have contracted the virus, along with several senators and a top military leader.
Oct. 6, 2020, 7:18 p.m. ET
One aide to Mr. Pence expressed disdain about the use of the barriers, suggesting they could be used to make a candidate look weak. “If Senator Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” the aide, Katie Miller, said.
A spokeswoman for the debate commission declined to comment.
A virtual event is also under consideration for Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden’s next scheduled debate on Oct. 15, though those discussions remain in a preliminary phase, according to two people with knowledge of the commission’s deliberations.
Much remains unknown about that debate, including if Mr. Trump will be well enough to attend and if Mr. Biden’s team would be comfortable with the former vice president’s sharing an indoor stage with a president who has been contagious.
Mr. Trump’s aides insist that he plans to be there. Some of those close to the president have discussed the possibility of holding the two remaining debates outdoors, noting that Mr. Biden has participated in outside forums.
For Wednesday’s vice-presidential matchup, the onstage gap between Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence will be 12 feet 3 inches — five inches shorter than the distance that separated Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. last week in Cleveland. The moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, will sit the same distance away from the candidates.
Organizers have pledged to eject any audience members who decline to wear a face mask, after Mr. Trump’s family and aides removed their masks in the debate hall in defiance of rules set by the Cleveland Clinic. “If anyone does not wear a mask, they will be escorted out,” the debate commission said in a memo, though it did not specify how the policy would be enforced.
Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who moderated the Cleveland debate, said that Mr. Trump was not tested by the Cleveland Clinic beforehand, with organizers relying on an “honor system” by which campaigns were expected to report on their candidate’s health.
Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence “will be Covid tested prior to the debate,” the commission said, but which entity would oversee that testing remained unclear. There will be no handshake “or physical greeting” between Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence, and no opening or closing statements.