Blue Jays' return to Canada 'trending in a very good direction'

Ben Nicholson-Smith joined Sportsnet Central to talk about the hurdles facing the Blue Jays as the team aims to return home and play games in Toronto at the Rogers Centre.

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays’ application to host games at Rogers Centre is “trending in a very good direction” and doesn’t include any “showstoppers,” Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Thursday, although there’s no timeline for a decision.

His comments during a governmental COVID-19 news conference offered promise that the country’s only Major League Baseball team can return home, but it’s unclear if a National Interest Exemption will be granted in time for a pivotal 10-game homestand beginning July 30.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting with the country’s premiers Thursday night to discuss further measures around the border, and details from the government are expected in the coming days.

The Blue Jays need, and are expecting, an answer by Friday to pull off the logistics of a move from Buffalo’s Sahlen Field by month’s end, with a seven-game homestand starting Aug. 20 the next transfer point.

Njoo said the Public Health Agency of Canada was “very aware,” of the looming deadline and added that “we recognize what's in play and we're making the best possible efforts to render a decision in the right time frame that would be a good decision and a well-received decision by all.”

What roadblocks remain aren’t clear and Njoo said “I can't offer specifics” when asked which final pieces need to fall in place. The Blue Jays are proposing a dual-track plan in which fully vaccinated players are treated like all returning Canadians and unvaccinated players are limited to their residence/hotel and the ballpark.

It is not dissimilar from the plan used by the Montreal Canadiens during their NHL Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, involving multiple border crossings. Other exemptions were recently issued for the Olympic basketball qualifying tournament staged in Victoria and the ongoing Calgary Stampede.

Public health’s sign-off on the protocols is one part of the equation, as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada also must approve, although Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc said he was “encouraged” by Njoo’s response.

LeBlanc, who said he watches Blue Jays games on TV, pointed to the NHL and Stampede as proof that sporting events can be staged safely with the proper protocols and added “that if you're lucky enough to be in Toronto and able to watch them play in person, it would certainly be of interest to many, many Canadians.”

“We're lucky that the Blue Jays organization, like other large sports organizations, very much want to have a collaborative, rigorous system in place that protects not only their players and personnel, but Canadians as well,” he added.

Njoo acknowledged that there’s been a lot of back-and-forth on Major League Baseball’s protocols and that the Blue Jays have incorporated those recommendations into their plan. One consideration is the treatment of families, who are likely to be subject to the same rules as all arriving travellers, while another is securing the approvals from the municipal and provincial levels, which has already taken place.

“I would say it's trending in a very good direction at this point. We're looking at the last details,” said Njoo. “I would say there aren't any showstoppers or anything that we can't really continue to discuss and move forward on. I can't give you a date in terms of when a possible decision would be made for the National Interest Exemption. But I would say that in terms of the discussions from a public health perspective, they've been going very well.”

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