In VP debate, plexiglass an extra participant on the stage

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Vice President Mike Pence is reflected in the plexiglass barrier as Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., answers a question during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

SALT LAKE CITY – There were three participants in the vice presidential debate: Republican Mike Pence, Democrat Kamala Harris and the plexiglass between them.

The clear partitions went largely unmentioned Wednesday night as Pence and Harris directed criticism at one another, and the home audience couldn't see them in split-screen TV images. But when the cameras showed Pence or Harris from the side, the candidates' reflections were evident on the barriers.

It was a reminder of the coronavirus, prominent in the evening's discussion. They were late additions to the stage in Salt Lake City, underscoring how the pandemic rages on less than a month before the Nov. 3 election. Pence and Harris were stationed at desks spaced more than 12 feet (3.7 meters) apart, each with a partition on the side facing the other candidate.

Sen. Harris' team requested plexiglass be used after President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after his first presidential debate against Democrat Joe Biden last week in Cleveland. Pence's team, meanwhile, insisted they were not medically necessary, an objection that came as Trump returned to the White House. The Trump campaign is trying to move past the virus despite the president's own diagnosis.

For the most part, Pence and Harris directed their comments toward moderator Susan Page rather than in each other's direction. She was not protected by plexiglass.

Other reminders that these are not normal times for a vice presidential debate: 20 chairs for guests were spaced roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart in the debate hall, a performing arts center on the University of Utah campus. The auditorium’s balcony included 60 students who won a lottery for tickets and were issued salmon-colored university masks. Donors and other guests sat in traditional theater seats, though there were at least two empty seats between guests.

Staff took guests’ temperatures upon entrance into the hall and asked people to sanitize their hands. Wearing a mask was required. Guests were reminded before the event started to keep their masks on and advised that anyone not complying would be asked to put them back on. Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, warned that those who refused would be escorted out of the hall by law enforcement.

The debate went on without interruption. But when it finished, Karen Pence removed the mask she had been wearing as she joined her husband on stage. Doug Emhoff, Harris' husband, kept his on.