TORONTO – Between the uncertainty of where they’ll be playing next week, let alone next month, along with the fallout from a recent outbreak, the Toronto Blue Jays have involuntarily become Major League Baseball’s test case for operating amid COVID-19-caused chaos.
Their limbo continued Tuesday as players and coaches continued to arrive in Dunedin, Fla., to begin the pre-screening and intake protocol mandated by the 2020 operations manual ahead of Wednesday’s official reporting date.
Canadian government officials, meanwhile, continued weighing the club’s modified quarantine proposal which, if approved, would allow the Blue Jays to set up shop at Rogers Centre for both training camp and the regular season.
A report in the Toronto Star on Tuesday evening cited an unnamed source saying the federal government had joined city and provincial officials in approving the spring training portion of the Blue Jays’ application, although that seemingly echoes comments from Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Monday.
The primary obstacle still remains finding a workaround to the 14-day isolation period required for arriving, non-essential travellers that would prevent the Blue Jays and visiting clubs from adhering to the regular-season schedule. Without approval on that front, there’s little reason for the club to yo-yo its players from Dunedin to Toronto and then back to Dunedin for games.
Hence, as the Blue Jays continue searching for equilibrium under ever-shifting grounds, their predicament is a window into what other teams could face if the COVID-19 surge in parts of the United States – including Texas, Florida, Arizona and California where 10 big-league teams are based – isn’t soon brought under control.
“I’m such a sports fan, but I think that the realities of what is going on right now in the south and southwestern U.S. prevents any of those locales from being involved in professional sports at this point in time,” says Dr. Andrew Morris, medical director of the antimicrobial stewardship program at Sinai Health System/University Health Network and an infectious diseases professor at the University of Toronto.
“That’s my personal belief,” he continues. “There are too many factors involved in it, from the transmissibility, to the anticipated overwhelming of their health care systems, to the messaging that life can go on as normal when they all are in absolutely critical situations. For all those reasons, I think that there is serious pause that needs to be had for all of those (locales). I cannot imagine a situation will they will not be revisiting the feasibility of including all those teams and those locations in the reopening plan.”
For those reasons and others, Morris is also against governmental approval of the Blue Jays’ modified quarantine plan, which is built around isolating the team and visiting clubs at Rogers Centre and the attached hotel.
In theory, taking players, coaches and staff directly from the airport to the hotel and only allowing them to leave for the field would limit contact with the community, but he believes even that is too risky.
“If you wear rose-coloured glasses, that’s a fantastic plan,” Morris says. “I’m trying to understand how you have professional athletes moving from city to city for months, and remaining in a, quote, bubble. … I just cannot imagine that you are going to be able, in a reasonable manner, to keep infection out of baseball by doing this.”
Much as it’s giving the Canadian government pause, the travel aspect is also the element that Morris gets stuck on, too.
He points to a series of fundamental principles in infectious disease – that congregations of people lead to spread; that respiratory infections are highly transmissible; and that migrations of people makes for bad epidemiology – as reasons to justify caution.
“The reason why a virus that came out of Wuhan, China is all over the world is because of migration patterns,” he says.
Despite that, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital as well as a clinician investigator the TGH Research Institute and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, believes that if the Blue Jays and other MLB clubs follow the protocols, the plan is “either no to low risk.”
“Think about this,” Bogoch says. “You fly in through chartered flights, you land at Pearson, you get secure transportation to the hotel, you’re not leaving the hotel, the hotel is right there in the field, you stay in the hotel, you play your games and then you go back to the hotel, then you take your secure transportation to the airport and go home.
“If you can conduct a system where you have minimal interaction with hotel staff, with the transportation staff, this would pose a very, very, very low to no risk to the general public.”
The collective sacrifices Canadians have made amid the pandemic – economic, social, psychological and emotional – have understandably sensitized parts of the community to any unnecessary risk that could reignite spread.
Yet that doesn’t mean that in certain cases, special accommodations shouldn’t be made, says Bogoch, especially when it’s for a steady group of roughly 50 people plus another similarly-sized transient group, amid a provincial population of 15 million and national count of 38 million.
“If we take a step back and really look at this objectively, is this special consideration given to pro athletes? A little bit, but not a ton,” he says. “It’s the quarantine act. The quarantine act basically says you have to stay at a place and not leave that place, in your hotel or in a home, for a period of 14 days when you come in the country. These guys are coming in the country and they’re not skirting the quarantine, this would be making that umbrella slightly larger, from the hotel to the field.
“If that’s the case, this doesn’t pose significant risk, if any risk, to the general public.”
That’s fully dependent, of course, on 100 per cent compliance, and Bogoch believes the penalties for violating the quarantine act, along with the stakes for the Blue Jays and visiting clubs, as well as MLB as a whole, would be enough to ensure there’s no freelancing.
Morris — who feels the NBA’s bubble plan is the most well-considered concept among the sports leagues but even still is in tough to succeed — counters that the type of extended lockdown players would be under will be near impossible to maintain.
“What they’re going to do is they’re going to say, ‘Well, I’m going to probably test negative anyway, so it’s no big deal, and I’m going to put anyone in harm’s way, and if positive, I’ll be out 12 days but it’s not a big deal, we play enough games,’” says Morris. “And what happens when you get a positive case and then everyone says, ‘Wait, how did that happen? This person was supposed to be following the bubble? This should not have happened. Someone didn’t stay in the bubble?’ Then this concept just falls apart, because humans are human. So we can’t even rely then on the concept of the bubble.”
One way to resolve that issue is with strict monitoring of players and their contacts while in Canada, although the mechanics of that is problematic, as well.
Regardless, there’s potentially a sweet spot to be found between ensuring the safety of the community and ensuring that the Blue Jays and baseball teams do not become a drain on local resources, while also allowing them to play their season.
That’s a looming issue in the United States, especially if hospitals there creep toward capacity, with teams potentially requiring their services once the restart begins.
“You get injured, you get hit by a ball in the head, you’re now going to a medical centre that’s overwhelmed or getting close to being overwhelmed – how is that going to happen?” says Morris. “I’ve been saying this for months now, but what’s going on in these states will be worse, in my mind, than what happened in New York City. To imagine that this is a feasible plan, considering the possibility of the players requiring medical care in a hospital, I just can’t see this happening.”
The Blue Jays, more for preventative reasons than reactive reasons, find themselves in limbo because of the bigger-picture view. They’re the first big-league club to face this type of upheaval to their restart, but given how things are trending, they’re unlikely to be the last.