TORONTO – The primary hurdle for North America’s sports leagues isn’t in formulating foolproof back-to-play protocols, but rather in returning to work in an environment where COVID-19 hasn’t been properly contained in the first place.
Evidence of that came Friday with word of coronavirus outbreaks at the Tampa Bay area facilities of Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as the shutdown of the Toronto Blue Jays’ facility in nearby Dunedin, Fla., after a pitcher on the 40-man roster showed symptoms of the illness and was sent for testing.
Florida may be the next epicentre of the pandemic, and the state’s relatively lax approach to recommended precautionary measures complicates attempts to avoid infection for athletes based there.
As seriously as the sports leagues are treating the pandemic, it’s not that hard for irresponsible communities to undermine the entire endeavour.
So while baseball may have resumed in Japan, and continues in South Korea and Taiwan, and though soccer is being played in Europe, there’s a stark difference in the discipline of those populations compared to that of the United States, and that’s helped them roll along.
Consider these numbers:
The EU has 100 million more people than the United States, got hit earlier and with less warning, and didn’t do quick border shutdowns. The differences are all in domestic public-health and tracking measures pic.twitter.com/fhuigQFqOE
— Doug Saunders (@DougSaunders) June 19, 2020
Now, Florida isn’t the entire United States, but things are also going the wrong way in Texas and Arizona, where the San Francisco Giants shut down their camp Friday, as well.
Some news: The Giants closed their Scottsdale Stadium facility today “after one person who had been in the facility and one family member exhibited mild symptoms and were tested,” says Farhan Zaidi. The club is awaiting results.
— Andrew Baggarly (@extrabaggs) June 19, 2020
When baseball officials first started planning for the possibility of a season, each of those states was considered a potential home in a hub-city plan. At this point, teams would likely be safer in places like New York and Seattle, which a couple months back were devastated by the virus.
All of which makes the reckless brinkmanship between owners and players over money look like the appetizer rather than the main course, although drawing a COVID-19-is-the-real-threat-to-baseball-in-2020 narrative is far too simplistic.
The real threat for everybody, not just baseball, remains the Team Hoax portion of the populace, the people who won’t wear masks, refuse to social distance, defiantly gather in large groups and generally bury their heads in the sand because, you know, freedom dammit.
In such an environment, even those who are careful face increased risk due to sheer bad luck, like going to the grocery store or a local restaurant for pickup and crossing paths with the wrong person.
Though plenty of places have the outbreak under better control, we still must rely on each other to make society work in lieu of a vaccine or a reliable anti-viral.
For sports, the wider fallout from these outbreaks will be pivotal.
Major League Baseball drew a line in the sand with its players Friday, telling the union it will not go beyond a 60-game season. The outbreaks certainly bolster the owners’ argument for fewer games, and all along doubts have centred around not whether leagues could resume playing, but rather whether they can get to the finish line.
“Our Executive Board will convene in the near future to determine next steps,” the union said in a statement. “Importantly, players remain committed to getting back to work as soon as possible.”
That’s all further muddled at this point, with Joel Sherman of the New York Post reporting that MLLB is looking at closing all camps, sanitizing each facility and restarting with stricter protocols in place.
Source: with 3 camps having to close today due to COVID-19, MLB is strongly considering closing all 30 camps again to cleanse and re-establish a system in which players will test regularly when they return. Right now there is not a firm protocol for players using the facilities.
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) June 19, 2020
Such an approach would make sense as the incidents now may help break down the air of invincibility typical of young athletes and reinforce the need for caution among them. Similarly, it’s an early gauge of the effectiveness of the test-and-trace capabilities of individual clubs, offering critical feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
At the same time, this is also cause for a wider rethink of the entire enterprise.
“In terms of the implications of this outbreak on the Phillies’ 2020 season, the club declines comment, believing that it is too early to know,” the Phillies said in a statement about their outbreak.
Assuming a deal on the economic front gets done, the Blue Jays’ situation just became more complex because Dunedin is their back-up plan for home games if they can’t play in Toronto.
This week, president and CEO Mark Shapiro was added to the national lobbyists registry to pursue his discussions with federal government officials about allowing the Blue Jays and visiting teams to circumvent quarantine rules for arriving travellers.
The club’s clear preference is playing home games at Rogers Centre, but how will the government regard a suspected case at the Dunedin complex? And if they can’t play in Toronto, how safe will they be playing in Florida?
Based on the current trends, not very.
Besides the pitcher in question, the Blue Jays in a statement also confirmed that “personnel at the club’s spring training facilities in Dunedin,” have been tested for the coronavirus and that they “are following protocols put in place for this scenario, including guidelines from MLB and the club’s medical team. As a result, the Blue Jays have suspended operations at their Dunedin facilities for the time being.”
“For the time being” is the sort of vague, empty phrase befitting these troubled times, when our entire existence is an asterisk and no one can be certain of anything.
Will owners and players strike a deal? Will they be able to keep everybody relatively safe once they do play? Will they be able to isolate and contain small outbreaks?
A community where observance of health guidelines is lax and respect for COVID-19 is weak makes each of those tasks more difficult. Friday was a preview of the land mines ahead, and of the collective co-operation needed to safely navigate the unpredictable road to come.