MLB heightens health protocols after early outbreaks

Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies pulls up his mask between innings during a game earlier this week against the San Francisco Giants. New league health and safety rules mandate all MLB players and staff wear masks at all times, except when players are on the field. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Major League Baseball is tightening its health and safety protocols after outbreaks of Covid-19 among two clubs have threatened the viability of its newly started 2020 season.

Following virus outbreaks among both the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, the league detailed a series of enhanced measures in a detailed, six-page memo sent to all 30 clubs on August 5.

Among the additional steps that will be taken: mandatory wearing of face coverings at all times, with the exception of players on the field during games; reduced team traveling parties; no gathering of team personnel in hotel lobbies or individual hotel rooms; modifications to team travel by both plane and bus to allow for increased social distancing; and prohibitions on visiting bars, shopping malls, or other places where large groups of people congregate.

All teams will also be required to provide outdoor, covered spaces for visiting players and staff members, and while at ballparks, players will be encouraged to eat outdoors instead of in clubhouses.

Penalties for repeated or flagrant violation could include suspensions for the remainder of the season, including playoffs. Compliance officers have appointed for each team to enforce the enhanced protocols.

Twenty-two MLB games have been postponed thus far due to issues surrounding the Marlins and Cardinals

“We recognize that these changes place additional burdens and restrictions on players and staff,” the league’s memo reads in part. “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 wellbeing of everyone.”

MLB’s moves further illuminate the need to be flexible amid the ongoing pandemic, and make changes as quickly as possible. The PGA Tour in June similarly needed to enhance its health and safety protocols after an early run of positive tests in its restart of competition.

The latest moves in baseball also add to a prior set of protocols agreed to in June between the league and MLB Players Association as part of negotiations to restart the 2020 season.

The market-based nature of MLB’s restart, as well as the everyday nature of its competition and frequent travel, has also presented additional challenges compared to the single- and dual-site, quarantined environments for the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, and Women’s National Basketball Association, which are each on lengthy runs of reporting no new Covid-19 cases among its testing groups, including another report on August 5 by the NBA of no new positives.

MLB investigators have also found that lapses in prior protocols led to the outbreaks among both the Marlins and Cardinals.

“We believe, in the two serious outbreaks, that we can identify deviations from the protocols that resulted in the situations that we had,” said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in an interview with ESPN. “The key vigilance. It’s vigilance on the part of the commissioner’s office, club officials, players, and everyone involved in the game.”

Manfred’s comment amplify ones he made over the weekend in which he said he did not have an intention to end the 2020 season now due to the two team-level outbreaks.