TORONTO — All 30 Major League Baseball teams will train at their regular-season ballparks for the pandemic-shortened season after the Toronto Blue Jays received a Canadian federal government exemption on Thursday to work out at Rogers Centre.
Toronto will move camp from its spring training complex in Dunedin, Florida, where players reported for intake testing. The Blue Jays will create a quarantine environment at Rogers Centre and the adjoining Toronto Marriott City Centre Hotel, which overlooks the field.
Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson Marie-Pier Burelle said the players and staff have been issued an exemption to the mandatory isolation order on “national interest grounds.”
This exemption does not cover the regular season and player travel between the U.S. and Canada. Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said the team hopes to know within 10 days where it will play regular-season games.
“They felt better about being here,” Shapiro said of the players. “Toronto was a more comforting and safe place for them to be.”
COVID-19 cases are surging in Florida as health officials reported a single-day record total of 10,000 new cases, and before this week several players and staff in Dunedin had tested positive. Ontario reported 153 new cases and businesses in Toronto are reopening as the number of new cases declines.
Players are to take private charter flights to Toronto this weekend. Each will need two negative tests before getting on the plane, and each will then be tested every day.
MLB required an exemption to a requirement that anyone entering Canada for nonessential reasons must self-isolate for 14 days. The U.S.-Canada border remains closed to nonessential travel until at least July 21.
Burelle said MLB is offering “robust measures to mitigate the risk of importation and spread of COVID-19 in Canada.” She said Toronto Public Health and Ontario Public Health also support the proposed risk mitigation measures.
“Based on these factors, the government of Canada has issued an exemption to the mandatory isolation order on national interest grounds for team members and staff of the MLB,” she said. “Blue Jays players and staff who have traveled from outside of Canada will have to stay within the Rogers Centre and the specified areas of the attached hotel for 14 days.”
Burelle noted they have approved the MLB for only the preseason training phase and regular-season games still need to be evaluated. “Players and staff must comply with the MLB’s public health plan,” she said.
The border is expected to be closed well beyond opening day in late July.
“We do have a plan for that,” Shapiro said of the regular season. “We still have some areas to address. I would say we’re 80% of the way there with pure public health issues, but then there are travel-related issues.”
Shapiro said visiting teams would not leave the confines of Rogers Centre and the hotel attached to the stadium if the regular-season plan is approved. Shapiro said the Major League Baseball Players Association supports the proposal, but players’ union spokesperson Chris Dahl said the association had not yet signed off on the plan.
“Never leaving that footprint until they are done playing a three-game series would be the expectation for a visiting team,” he said.
The Blue Jays will use four locker rooms and employ social distancing during training camp. They will not play exhibition games with other teams during training camp. Precautions at the hotel include contact-less check-ins and discouraging the use of elevators.
“I don’t think we could do it any more safely than we are doing it,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro acknowledged the plan is not without risk, but said no players or staff have opted out.
Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto and the medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai-University Health Network, said the government and MLB will face significant blowback from Canada’s medical community if they approve a plan that allows players to go back and forth between the U.S. and Canada to play regular-season games. He said the U.S. is a disaster right now, particularly in the South and Southwest.
“Major League Baseball basically has said we are ignoring all concepts of a bubble, and we’re going to have a moving virtual bubble, and I just don’t see that as workable,” Morris said.
“You can hope, desire and want all you want. What COVID has really shown North Americans is hope is not a strategy or a plan. I would be really opposed to the plan for players to go back and forth between Canada and the U.S. without any kind of quarantining. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just madness in my mind.”
Federal and local health authorities in Canada approved a plan for the NHL to play in either Toronto or Edmonton, Alberta, but the plan does not involve travel back between the U.S. and Canada. The NHL is selecting hub cities — most likely two — where all the teams will play.