New York – A five-day quarantine before reporting to spring training. Shorter spring training games. No indoor dining. With few exceptions, no leaving the hotel or meeting anyone outside the traveling party while on the road. Mandatory wearable contact-tracing devices. Discipline for violations, including for failure to wear a mask correctly, or at all, while at the stadium.
These are among the many new wrinkles in the 108-page operations manual governing the 2021 Major League Baseball season. After the players’ union rejected a recent effort by the league to push back the start of the season and shave off eight games in response to the continuing threat from the coronavirus, a traditional 162-game schedule, starting on April 1 with normal travel, will be used.
With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in Arizona and Florida in just over a week, the union and MLB agreed late Monday on new health and safety protocols that build on the regulations and the lessons learned from last season.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who is not affiliated with MLB or the union, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I think the mitigation rules that they’ve created now have evidence that it worked for the most part, with a few exceptions.”
Before the delayed and abbreviated 60-game 2020 season began, MLB and the union agreed to a similarly lengthy operations manual. But back then, they were entering uncharted waters. Now, they have the benefit of their own experience, as well as the knowledge of what worked for other sports.
“Although no set of protocols is sufficient to completely eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19, in developing this plan, the parties relied on numerous MLB, MLBPA, and club medical staff and outside experts specializing in infectious diseases in order to minimize the risk present in baseball environments to the greatest extent possible,” said the introduction of the 2021 manual, a copy of which was obtained Tuesday by The New York Times. “The parties have also reviewed the COVID-19 health and safety plans from sports leagues around the world in order to develop the best possible approach.”
The rules, though, may evolve, just as they did last season. Initial delays with the every-other-day testing were ironed out. And after two early outbreaks on the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins threatened the viability of the season, MLB tightened its protocols and became more aggressive in postponing games after a positive test, while players and key staff became more vigilant.
In the end, all but two teams — the Detroit Tigers and the Cardinals – played the full 60 games in the regular season. There wasn’t a positive test among players for nearly two months. The creation of bubble-like conditions allowed the postseason to go off without a hitch — until the final day, when Justin Turner returned to the field to celebrate the Los Angeles Dodgers’ World Series title despite being pulled from the game following a positive test.
MLB and the players are attempting to do this all over again, but over a season nearly three times as long and with more new cases being reported in the United States now than when the last season started in July.
A notable addition to the 2021 manual is the league-wide code of conduct detailing acceptable behavior for players and key staff members away from the field. According to the manual, players and key staff members are barred from any of the following: indoor gatherings of 10 or more people, indoor dining, bars, lounges, clubs, movie theaters, casinos, bowling alleys and unapproved fitness centers. (Museums are permitted.) The players are also being asked to encourage members of their household to do the same.
Some of the activities on the road considered low risk and permissible are socially distanced outdoor dining and golf, provided the venues are within walking distance of the team hotel.
Last season, MLB found that several cases among players and staff could be traced to an infected family member, partner or friend outside the stadium. The 2021 regulations state that players and key staff are not allowed to meet with anyone outside the team’s traveling party. The exception to that is if the meeting is with members of the person’s household or family, but even then it must be outdoors, at or near the team hotel.
According to the manual, the players, key staff and their households must quarantine at home during spring training, with exceptions for such things as team activities, grocery store trips, doctor’s visits, work or school.
Violations of the code of conduct could result in suspensions or loss of pay.
To reduce time at the ballpark, the manual allows for spring training games to be cut to five or seven innings during the first two weeks. During the regular season, two other new provisions from 2020 will remain: seven-inning doubleheaders and a runner on second base in extra innings.
One prominent element, however, will not return: the universal designated hitter, which the union had sought. It became a negotiating chip: The league had offered the designated hitter in exchange for an expanded postseason, which the union rejected.
Rosters will be smaller than last year — 26 active players, with 28 in September, vs. as many as 30 last year — but reserve squads will remain, and roster rules may be relaxed to help clubs if there is a virus outbreak.
Teams must assign several new titles related to the many demands of playing during a pandemic: an infection control prevention coordinator, a compliance officer (who must be an assistant general manager or of higher-ranking), a contact tracing officer, a contact tracing working group and at least one face-mask enforcement officer.
Players and key staff must wear Kinexon contact tracing devices, which have also been used by the NFL and NBA. (The manual has various rules on who can gain access to the data in the event of a confirmed virus case and when the data should be deleted.) According to the protocols, “repeated failure” to wear the device at team facilities or during team activities, or to return them to their docking stations, can result in discipline.
Players and key staff can also be fined $150 per violation, beginning with the third instance, if they do not wear a mask properly, or at all, when required.
While the regulations for the season can be tightened as needed, they can also be relaxed should the public health situation improve. Vaccinations won’t be required for players, the manual stated, but MLB and the union will strongly encourage them “at the appropriate time.”
Saag said his hope that this MLB season can be completed stems in part from the rollout of vaccinations and from his belief that “a lot of the ice jam of getting access to vaccines will start to thaw” by opening day. He predicted a significant transition toward more normalcy and safety by perhaps the All-Star break in July.
“But here comes a caveat,” he said. “There’s an assumption in everything I just said, that the variants that are emerging will be contained through the vaccine, and that the public will continue to be vigilant, especially with regard to mask wearing and, for the time being, avoiding large crowds. So when you take that and extend it to the fans who would want to go to a game, we’re still going to have to constrain that until we get to a point where the transmission of virus is at a very low level.”
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