The Rules of the Vice Presidential Debate Have Changed Due to COVID-19

For one thing, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence will debate from behind plexiglass shields.

2020 vice presidential debate
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Though Joe Biden and President Donald Trump are scheduled to go head-to-head a total of three times before the presidential election on Nov. 3, their running mates, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, will do so only once. The vice presidential debate will take place on Oct. 7 at the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, and, like pretty much everything else this year, the VP debate will look a little different than usual due to COVID.

As with the presidential debates, the rules of Harris and Pence's showdown have been determined by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan group that has sponsored and produced all presidential debates since 1988. Though the CPD has yet to release the updated rules it promised after the chaotic first debate between Biden and Trump in September—presidential mute buttons, anyone?—here's everything we do know about the format of the vice presidential debate so far.

What COVID precautions will be in place at the VP debate?

The most obvious safety measure will be the introduction of plexiglass safety shields. The barriers will be placed near Harris, Pence, and debate moderator Susan Page in an effort to protect them from any potential COVID aerosols expelled by speaking, coughing, or sneezing.

Even with the safety shields between them, Harris and Pence will be positioned a little over 12 feet apart, with Page seated about the same distance from both candidates, who will also both be sitting at tables instead of standing at lecterns.

As with the presidential debate, there will be no formal handshake between Harris and Pence before or after their face-off. Both candidates will be tested for the coronavirus before the debate starts, though the debate commission has not shared what actions will be taken should either of them test positive.

And while Harris, Pence, and Page will not be wearing masks during the debate, everyone in the audience at Kingsbury Hall will be required to do so. The CPD has promised to escort out of the building any onlookers not complying with the mask mandate, according to The New York Times.

vp debate setup feature covid 19 safety precautions

The setup for the Oct. 7 vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence.

(Image credit: ERIC BARADAT)

What will be the format of the VP debate?

The 90-minute debate will cover nine different topics, with 10 minutes devoted to each. The topics have been decided by Page, the moderator, and have not been released ahead of the debate. It's likely that at least one portion of the debate will be devoted to the government's COVID response, as Pence is the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, while Harris may be grilled on her Congressional voting record on criminal justice and healthcare.

As for how each 10-minute segment will be shaped, the exact format is unclear. During the first presidential debate, which was divided into six 15-minute sections, each candidate had two minutes to respond to an initial question before having the chance to rebut the other's response, so we can expect something similar from the VP debate—though a little faster-paced and, hopefully, a little less interrupt-y.

How do Kamala Harris and Mike Pence feel about these safety precautions?

Harris and the Biden campaign are all for them. Pence and the Trump campaign? Not so much.

The CPD's Oct. 5 announcement of its plan to add plexiglass barriers to the debate stage was initially met by criticism and general disdain from the Pence camp, who claimed it was not medically necessary, The Washington Post reported. They also have reportedly maintained that Pence (who tested negative for COVID-19 as recently as Oct. 6) has not been in close contact with anyone who has recently tested positive, despite attending the infamous Rose Garden ceremony that is believed to be at the core of a recent outbreak among White House staffers and Republican leaders, and despite having traveled to Salt Lake City with Katie Miller, wife of Trump aide Stephen Miller, whose positive diagnosis was confirmed Oct. 6.

In response to Pence's pushback, Harris campaign spokesperson Sabrina Singh told CNN, "Senator Harris will be at the debate, respecting the protections that the Cleveland Clinic has put in place to promote safety for all concerned. 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."

However, Pence and his team announced the evening before the debate that they would allow one of the barriers to be placed next to the current vice president after all, according to the Post.

Watch it all go down on any major news network or via YouTube livestream at 9 p.m. ET on Oct. 7.

Andrea Park

Andrea Park is a Chicago-based writer and reporter with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the extended Kardashian-Jenner kingdom, early 2000s rom-coms and celebrity book club selections. She graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2017 and has also written for W, Brides, Glamour, Women's Health, People and more.