TORONTO – A modified cohort quarantine plan based out of the Rogers Centre and the hotel attached to it can work. Teams arriving in Toronto go directly to their rooms, remain largely restricted there and the ballpark, and have minimal contact with the wider community. Regular travel adds some risk, but that can be mitigated if everyone is disciplined.
That’s a big and pivotal if, although the feasibility of playing a 2020 Major League Baseball season — no matter the locale — resting largely on the discipline of everyone involved shows toward the health protocols called for in the sport’s numbingly thorough Operations Manual.
Lapses in judgment or a failure to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously carries far-reaching repercussions, as the Toronto Blue Jays discovered last week when an outbreak struck multiple players and staffers at their facility in Dunedin, Fla.
In the ensuing days the club has scrambled to add training camp, with its July 1 report date looming, to the restart plan for the regular season submitted to Canadian government health officials for consideration.
The club expressed a growing optimism for approval to its players and told them to be ready for a trip north during a Zoom chat Thursday night, according to four sources, but team president and CEO Mark Shapiro cautioned on a conference call Friday that “there is no closure at the moment.”
Details are still being ironed out and the entire initiative could still hit a snag, but the limbo will soon be over one way or another. “Sometime over the weekend we’ll get them on their way and tell them where to report,” said Shapiro.
Dunedin is the club’s sole backup plan – both Buffalo, which will serve as the club’s Alternative Training Site, and sharing Tropicana Field with the Tampa Bay Rays, were examined and ruled out – and staging training camp and regular season games there is a worrying thought for both the organization and some of its players.
While declining to divulge details on the scope of his team’s outbreak there – the Philadelphia Phillies announced that six players and five staffers tested positive in nearby Clearwater – Shapiro called the positives “community cases” that “weren’t necessarily confined to our facility.”
“We are all learning, particularly those outside of Toronto and Canada, about community contact and how important it is to be diligent to the protocol that can protect you from being infected by the virus,” he continued. “When we let our guard down, what has happened in Florida – not to us, not to our guys – and much of the United States is a reminder that we still need to be diligent. We still need to be very focused on details and we still need to take every precaution possible.”
Especially if the modified cohort quarantine akin to what the NHL successfully pitched to the government is to ultimately work. The Blue Jays “created what would be an appendix or an additional plan” to the already stringent Operations Manual, said Shapiro, going “above and beyond” the stipulations for the rest of the league.
The government will need to be convinced to grant an exemption like the one ordered by council for the NHL, allowing teams to not only circumvent the border restrictions in place, but also the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, as well.
Complicating things is that Blue Jays players will be almost exclusively arriving from the United States, with several of them based in Florida, which reported a single-day increase of 8,942 cases Friday. None is yet to go through the intake process prescribed by MLB, which includes a symptom and exposure questionnaire as part of a pre-screening, followed by a scheduled appointment for diagnostic/PCR testing as well as serology/antibody testing.
Given the coronavirus’ prevalence in the communities from where they’ll be arriving, “I can tell you that we expect a lot of positive tests,” said Shapiro.
“Any time you do comprehensive testing – there are some reports in the NBA today – and just like we see in the news every day, as testing goes up, the numbers go up,” he continued. “We’re testing every single person at intake. I can’t characterize what it means, but I would expect a large number of positive tests and that’s going to be part of the transition process into creating the closed environment as much as possible around our players.”
In theory, once players come through clean, the Blue Jays will be able to maintain a bubble for themselves and other teams within the dome and the attached hotel. Given how access will be restricted to the players, coaches and staff who make up what the Operations Manual describes as Tier 1 personnel, they should be able to stay healthy as long as everyone keeps up their end of the bargain.
“Ultimately, while there is no 100 per cent certainty, there are many things within each of our control that enable us to stay healthy,” said Shapiro. “And the players are going to be constantly educated on that and provided protection wherever possible.”
On paper, it can work.
That really depends on how strict everyone’s adherence is to the plan, and how much spread exists within the communities they’re in.
Significant swaths of the United States have screwed up their shutdowns, not only failing to contain COVID-19, but also allowing it to spread again to the current danger point. Here in Toronto, where the pandemic appears to be better under control and the economic reopening has occurred more slowly, there are justifiable questions about the wisdom of all this.
“To me, that’s a negative way of looking at the reality that there are challenges,” said Shapiro. “We’re all trying to deal with our lives. We’re all trying to deal with our businesses. And we’re all trying to be as respectful as we can to public health throughout the process. But we still want to have some normalcy where we can have it, and we feel like this is one piece of bringing back a positive distraction and a potentially uplifting respite within a day for us and for baseball fans and sports fans throughout Canada.”
What a terrific outcome that would be, especially given how troubling the alternative to it would be.