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The VP Debate Stage Is the Coronavirus Response in Physical, Design-Failure Form

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Partitions? Please.

The stage (lit up in bright blue) for the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall of the University of Utah features plexiglass partitions between two desks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Vice President Mike Pence and US Senator Kamala Harris will both be present. ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images

A clear contender for the worst design of 2020 has emerged: the stage for tonight’s vice-presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. And we’re not talking about the bald-eagle setpiece that looks like it was borrowed from a budget beer brand. (Debate stages do tend to look like bad game shows, so that’s par for the course.) It’s the puny plexiglass partitions that will not are somehow supposed to protect the vice-presidential candidates from catching COVID-19. Experts say they’re useless.

What a glaringly obvious symbol of the ineffective, embarrassing, and negligent response to addressing the pandemic. As a thought experiment, imagine if one of the debaters were smoking and exhaled visible smoke: Would it reach the other debater in this setup? Of course it would. As Josh Gondelman, a writer for Desus & Mero, pointed out on Twitter, “We protect salad bars better than this.”

This barely half-baked protection is a barely half-baked response after the Biden-Harris campaign asked the Commission on Presidential Debates for additional precautions. Even as there has been a spike of coronavirus cases in the White House, Pence, who is chair of the White House’s coronavirus task force and has been exposed to known carriers of the virus, has tested negative. The Pence campaign’s people initially scoffed at the suggestion of a physical barrier, saying that they didn’t believe that barriers worked, but eventually agreed to the partitions. The two candidates will also be standing 12 feet apart, farther than usual.

The science explaining how COVID-19 spreads is still evolving. Many public-health officials recommend physical barriers as a way to help stop the spread of the virus, and nearly all agree that the intent is to catch exhaled aerosol particles and expelled droplets. The CDC recently issued a report confirming that airborne transmission is possible and that particles can linger in indoor air. It’s not that plexiglass barriers are inherently a bad idea, but these look to be about five to six feet tall and maybe three feet wide. Perhaps something that actually enclosed the candidates? Curved in over and around them, at least? Instead, each partition was trimmed into an arch, presumably for looks, removing a significant amount of protective material. If only there was someone involved with that set who cared as much about actually addressing COVID-19 as the stagecraft surrounding it.