Blue Jays await federal exemption letter after getting OK from health officials

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Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – As the Toronto Blue Jays work through the summer camp intake process in Dunedin, Fla., they are only a federal government exemption letter away from shifting their training north to Rogers Centre.

Obtaining the letter, which would allow them to modify terms of the Quarantine Act for returning travellers, is the final step needed for approval of their camp proposal, after getting the green light from federal, provincial and municipal health officials, according to a source directly involved in the process.

There is optimism the exemption – akin the one provided to the NHL – will get done, but time is quickly running out for the Blue Jays, who have a charter ready to leave Dunedin for Toronto as soon as Saturday.

An extended delay in securing the letter, which must come from a federal minister, could force the team to run its camp in Dunedin, since preparations for a tentative July 24 start to the season are already condensed.

The approval is expected to be initially for camp only, as the work over the past week and a half has focused on moving the training to Toronto due to a surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida. There are further details to nail down for the regular season and time to do it, according to the source, although the camp plan will largely serve as a template for hosting the 30 games.

That protocol – developed with and signed off by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and Toronto Public Health – extends beyond the measures demanded in MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual and is built around the creation of a bubble at Rogers Centre and the hotel attached.

The Blue Jays, under that plan, would be limited to the dome and hotel’s boundaries, essentially fulfilling the quarantine requirements there. But there are several steps beyond that, as well, the club is taking to limit risk to the wider community:

• Under MLB’s protocol, every player is required to undergo a diagnostic/PCR and serology/antibody testing, a process currently underway. Blue Jays players and staff will undergo a second PCR test, and only those who have had two negative results will be allowed to travel north;

• Once here, the Blue Jays will have additional PCR testing beyond the every-other-day checks mandated by MLB, and anyone who tests positive will remain in isolated quarantine until he produces two negative tests;

• Essential Toronto-based staff allowed to interact with players and staff will undergo the same testing and quarantine process;

• Their security screening before flying to Toronto via private charter will take place either at TD Ballpark in Dunedin or planeside to limit contact with the general public;

• Private buses conforming to physical distancing and cleaning standards set by the Public Health Agency of Canada will be used for transport from Pearson International Airport;

• To minimize contact with hotel staff and the general public, the Blue Jays will have contactless check-ins and food delivery, as well as private dining;

• The team will create a quarantine zone with a dedicated room block at the hotel that is isolated from the general public;

• Access to Rogers Centre will be limited and the building will be divided into tiered areas to further isolate players and staff, while physical distancing will be promoted through staggered outbreaks, with high-touch areas disinfected hourly.

A plan for the regular season would work similarly, with the visiting club operating under similar limitations and isolated in its own block of the hotel.

Adherence is obviously pivotal and, in theory, the harsh penalties for violating the Quarantine Act, as well as the stakes for Major League Baseball should ensure full compliance.

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The operational challenges of playing baseball amid the pandemic were highlighted for the Blue Jays during a recent outbreak at the club’s facility in Dunedin, Fla., and in a series of roster moves Thursday morning.

They reclaimed infielder Breyvic Valera on waivers from the San Diego Padres while also adding right-hander Bryan Baker, infielder Patrick Kivlehan and outfielder Josh Palacios to their 60-man player pool, pushing their total up to 62.

The only way to exceed the max of 60 is if some players are being placed on the COVID-19 Injured List, transactions that don’t have be announced publicly.

Bottom line – they’ve had additional positive tests.

Under terms of the Blue Jays’ plan, those players won’t be able to travel to Toronto until they produce two negative test results. As for their teammates, they should have their training camp locale settled one way or another soon enough.

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