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Nightengale: MLB Gets Serious with Covid-19 Protocols After Team Outbreaks

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A worker sprays the dugout rail to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, before the Miami Marlins' baseball practice at Marlins Park in Miami. Photo: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

By Bob Nightengale |

Major League Baseball, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreaks on the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, sent severe, revised protocol measures to all clubs Wednesday, threatening to suspend a player or staff member for the remainder of the season for repeated or flagrant violations.

MLB, which is dealing with scheduling havoc caused by 33 members of Marlins and Cardinals testing positive for COVID-19, is hiring officials to monitor clubhouses and team hotels to assure there are no violations.

“We recognize that these changes place additional burdens and restrictions on players and staff,’’ according to a copy of a six-page memo obtained by USA TODAY Sports that was distributed to all teams. “But if we desire to play, they are necessary to limit infections and, if someone does test positive, to keep the virus from spreading. The behavior of every covered individual affects the players and staff on his or her team, and on other clubs as well.

“Everyone must be accountable for their own conduct because the careless or reckless actions of a few can impact the health and well-being of everyone.’’

MLB made it clear in the memo it will not tolerate reckless activity, or there will be severe punishment.

“Any covered individuals — whether players or club staff — who are found to have repeatedly or flagrantly violated the protocols, including refusing to wear a face covering when required and reminded to do so,’’ the memo reads, “risks being prohibited from further participation in the 2020 season and postseason (in the case of players, subject to the just cause provisions in the Basic Agreement). The Commissioner’s Office will send written warnings prior to any such action being taken.’’

In the new protocols, MLB is requiring everyone to always wear masks when not on the field, while also severely limiting all interaction among players, coaches and staff members.

The revised protocols include:

  • Players and staff wear face coverings at all times, including the dugout and clubhouse, with the exception of players on the field. This includes all coaches on the field, and every member of the umpiring crew. They must also wear face coverings at all times in the hotel and at public places on the road.
  • Clubs now are required to reduce the size of their traveling parties to only personnel who are absolutely essential to playing games. The compliance officers must certify that every member of the traveling party served an essential function on the road trip.
  • Staff and players are strictly prohibited from meeting in hotel rooms while on the road (including to share food), and may not gather in any public areas of the hotel without permission from the team’s compliance officer. Each team will make at least one private large room at the hotel with food and other amenities that is configured to allow for social distancing. Yet, while eating and drinking, individuals are discouraged from talking to one another, or even facing one another.
  • On road trips, clubs must provide a minimum of four buses, with a fully unoccupied row between players and staff members, while prohibiting side-by-side seating. On planes, players and staff members are prohibited from having more than two individuals in a row, and they can’t sit across from one another. They also are prohibiting anyone from leaving their seats except to use the lavatory. Players and staff members also must wear surgical masks or N95/KN95 respirators on the plane, prohibiting cloth face coverings.
  • Eating and drinking are still permitted on planes, but players and staff are prohibited from talking to one another at the same time.
  • Any player or staff member must notify their compliance officer if they intend to leave the hotel on the road. The officer will decide whether their planned trip outside the hotel complies with the manual and the club’s code of conduct.
  • All clubs now are required to provide outdoor, covered spaces for all visiting players and staff members to sit. Whenever possible, players and players are also encouraged to eat outdoors instead of the clubhouse.
  • While at home, players and staff members are strictly prohibited from visiting bars, lounges, malls, or places in which large groups gather.
  • Players and staff members who have been ordered to quarantine or isolate on the road may not leave their hotel rooms under any circumstance. Any club official who does not receive permission from the commissioner’s office to end their quarantine or isolation is subject to discipline.

The memo also discusses key questions that have been asked by club officials and players, wondering what actually determines when games are postponed.

“The protocols contemplate that games will be permitted to continue when a player or staff member test positive after the contract tracing process is completed,’’ the memo reads. “After any persons who had close contact with the infected player or staff member are identified and isolated, the rest of the team is cleared to resume normal operations.

“We have had numerous situations this season in which a player or staff member on a club tested positive, that individual was isolated, and games continued without any further spread of the virus.’’

So why was the Marlins’ situation treated differently, with not only the Marlins shut down for a week, but also their opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies?

“The circumstances surrounding the Marlins are unique in several different respects, including the number of individuals who tested positive, the spread of the virus among both players and staff, and the timeline of when the additional infections were identified, the memo reads. “After consulting with our experts, we made the decision to postpone all Marlins games for more than a week to contain the spread of the infection.

“At the time, the rate of positive results and close contacts had increased substantially, and we wanted to pause to prevent further infection while we gained a better understanding of the circumstances underlying the spread.

“MLB investigators have now conducted a thorough investigation of the factors contributing to the spread of the virus within the Marlins traveling party, and our decision to revise the protocols is based on many of the things that we learned.’’

And the reason for the Phillies’ games to be postponed, too?

“The Phillies played the Marlins in the middle of what we later learned was a developing outbreak on the Marlins,’’ the memo reads. “Even though the clubs played three games against one another and many Marlins players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19, no player or coach on the Phillies contracted COVID-19 from anyone on the Marlins.

“To date, only one Phillies employee (who is not on-field personnel) has been confirmed as having been infected with COVID-19 since the series with the Marlins, and our experts have not determined whether the staff member was infected by a Marlins player or some other source. This underscores that the risk of transmission on the field and between clubs is low because, under the protocols, opposing players should not have close contact with one another, and, if they do, that contact is outdoors where the risk of transmission is significantly decreased.’’

It also details the reasoning for the Cardinals’ series being postponed against the Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers.

“The Cardinals were notified late on Thursday night that two players on the team had tested positive. The Friday game between the Cardinals and Brewers was scheduled to be played at 1 p.m., and given that multiple close contacts had been identified, including anticipated on-field personnel, the game was postponed to allow for further testing.

Once it was determined that additional players and staff on the club had tested positive, we decided, after consulting with our experts, to have the Cardinals quarantine in Milwaukee to prevent any further the spread of the virus.

“We later postponed the Cardinals’ series against the Tigers in order to ensure that no additional Cardinals players or staff were infected before allowing those who had consistently tested negative to resume playing against other clubs. We have been testing the Cardinals every day since Friday, and there were no new positives among the Cardinals players or staff on Monday or Tuesday.

“We will be conducting daily testing of all Cardinals players and staff for the next several days; and assuming there is no evidence of further transmission within the organization, our experts are comfortable with the Cardinals players and staff who have not tested positive resuming play on Friday.’’

The memo also informed teams there is little chance the virus can remain in a clubhouse that had infected players, with all clubhouses undergoing a deep cleaning in which all areas are scrubbed by a disinfectant.

“Our experts inform us that COVID-19 is an easy virus to kill when the proper disinfectant is used. Also, if a visiting clubhouse attendant had close contact with a player or other individual who tested positive, the attendant is sent home and cannot return to work until he tests negative and is cleared by the Joint Committee to return. Visiting and home clubhouse attendants are not permitted to enter the other clubhouse to help prevent the spread of the virus.’’

Certainly, the new protocols are daunting. They are intimidating. And scary.

But, perhaps absolutely necessary, if the 2020 Major League Baseball season is going to continue without interruption.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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