'National interest' and 'risk mitigation' paved way for Blue Jays to train in Toronto
Infectious disease specialist says risk to public low if players adhere to measures
Canada's Public Health Agency (PHAC) says robust measures taken by Major League Baseball to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is what led the government to issue an exemption to the mandatory isolation order for the Blue Jays to hold training camp in Toronto.
It's a decision PHAC says was based on "national interest grounds."
In an email to CBC Sports late Thursday, the health agency said it had received written commitments from both Toronto Public Health and Ontario Public Health supporting the "proposed risk mitigation measures" being taken by the MLB plan.
Jays president Mark Shapiro revealed on a conference call a 100-page document presented to the government highlighting the safety measures.
What exactly national interest grounds entails isn't completely clear but federal health officials say they see professional sports returning to Canada as a positive.
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"This is a gradual and measured resumption of professional sports, and is another step towards safely restarting many of the activities that were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic," the organization wrote in an email.
The PHAC says 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.
"We have approved the MLB only for the preseason training phase 1 and 2 in Canada. Pre- and regular-season games still need to be evaluated," the email said.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, Friday said any plan permitting the team to travel between the Canada-U.S. border carries risk.
"Certainly, we'd have to look very carefully at what proposal would be put forward by Major League Baseball and also the Blue Jays specifically, if they were to entertain the idea of home games and what that would mean for teams coming in," Njoo said. "What types of precautions or preventative measures would be put in place for those players in their home cities?
"A lot of states have, at the present time, quite a high level of activity of COVID-19. ... I think it's a matter of looking very carefully at the plan that would be proposed with respect to the regular season and taking it from there."
The federal government has reportedly granted the same exemption to the NHL to allow Edmonton and Toronto to act as hub cities for its expected resumption of play, though no official announcement has been made. The two hub cities will have 12 teams in each location staying inside a bubble-like scenario — they will be positioned in either city from start to finish and move from hotel to venue to play games.
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The Jays, however, and their opponents, would be coming in and out of Toronto during its 60-game schedule. That's the complicating factor to being able to play the season in Toronto.
Shapiro said Jays want to play at the Rogers Centre in Toronto but recognizes the health concerns of having hundreds of players traveling in and out of the city over the season. He said the organization and league are currently finalizing their safety protocol plan to present to the government.
"We will look to end up with a similar result where we protect the public in every way possible, but we have to deal with not just our team coming in and out of the country but the visiting team as well," Shapiro said Thursday.
PHAC will decide whether to grant the Jays and all opposing teams exemption from the mandatory isolation order for the entire season.
While some see this move as irresponsible in light of the months of stringent restrictions for the public, Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and researcher based at Toronto General Hospital, says the plan can work.
"On the riskometer, this is really, really low," he said.
"It basically isn't skirting a quarantine act, it's modifying it to make the quarantine be a larger umbrella between your hotel and the playing facility," he said. "The key thing is, are you taking away resources from the local community? It doesn't sound like it. Are you putting the local community at risk? It doesn't sound like it."
Bogoch said people should think of the Rogers Centre and adjoining hotel as a big home with a backyard that includes a baseball stadium. He said the risk of transmission to the public from pro baseball players is low if they adhere to staying inside the hotel and Rogers Centre.
But Bogoch admitted the efficacy of the plan relies solely on whether players follow the rules and don't leave the confines.
"It's going to be pretty obvious if a professional baseball player is hanging out having a beer down the street. The optics of that would be terrible," Bogoch said.
'Devil is in details'
"The devil is in the details. How it's implemented will be important. Players and teams have been given such a tremendous privilege, they better not screw this up."
The Blue Jays will be flying into Toronto this weekend and will immediately begin summer training camp. Opening Day is scheduled for either July 23 or 24 — that gives the team three weeks to prepare for the season, not knowing if they'll play at the Rogers Centre.
But Bogoch sees a scenario working for the Jays and opposing teams to play at the venue. Teams visiting Toronto, including the Jays when they return from a road trip, would take a charter flight that lands at Pearson. They would arrive and go directly to pre-arranged private transportation, he said.
From there, Bogoch said, teams would travel directly to the hotel attached to the Rogers Centre where rooms would already be assigned and there would be no need for hotel staff to be in contact with players or team personnel.
"You go right to the field, you don't mingle, you don't go out. Play the game. Then you leave," Bogoch said.
Once the games are over, the Jays and their opposition would then go from hotel, to transportation, and fly away to the next city. And then do it all over again.
"You have to ask yourself, does that put the general public at risk? And the answer is probably not," Bogoch said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says players and staff must comply with the MLB's public health plan and if anything changes, PHAC would have to approve those plans.