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Hosting regular season MLB in Toronto 'totally different ball game'

The Rogers Centre. CITYNEWS/Tony Fera

The Toronto Blue Jays have been cleared to start their summer training camp at Rogers Centre, but Canada’s deputy chief public health officer says hosting other teams there during the regular season would be a “totally different ball game.”

The Blue Jays, the lone MLB team north of the Canada-U.S. border, received permission from the Canadian government Thursday to use their Toronto stadium during the COVID-19 pandemic for training purposes.

A decision has yet to be made on whether Rogers Centre can host games during the regular season, which would involve constant travel between the border.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Friday that plan carries risk, and an exemption for the Blue Jays isn’t guaranteed.

“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.”

Training camps were set to begin around the league on Friday, but the Blue Jays are slightly delayed as their players and staff undergo the intake and screening process at their spring training stadium in Dunedin, Fla.

Team President and CEO Mark Shapiro said Thursday that two negative COVID tests will be required before anyone can board a private charter to Toronto, which he expects to happen this weekend.

Unlike the NHL and NBA, which are planning to play in either hub cities or one large complex once their seasons resume, MLB teams will be travelling for road games against division rivals and teams in the corresponding division of their opposite league.

That would mean Toronto would travel to New York, Boston, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And teams from those cities would come into Canada on multiple occasions as well.

“Our priority is really safe-guarding the health and safety of all Canadians,” Njoo said. “Certainly there’s lots of aspects we have to look at, not just in terms of the Blue Jays but what the risk would be in terms of themselves travelling back and forth, if they were to entertain having home games at Rogers Centre in Toronto, as well as for visiting teams crossing our border.

“The Blue Jays are the only non-American team, the only Canadian team in Major League Baseball and I think that needs to be part of the thinking for all of Major League Baseball in terms of how they might actually want to move forward (with) plans for the regular season.”

The abbreviated 60-game regular season is slated to start July 23 or 24 and last 66 days.

Several Blue Jays players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 recently and the team had to close its spring training facility earlier this month after one player showed symptoms of the virus.

Florida reported a record-high 10,109 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday while Ontario’s new case total for the same day was 153.

Because anyone entering Canada for nonessential purposes needs to self-isolate for 14 days, MLB needed a letter of exemption from the federal government to allow for a “modified quarantine.”

Toronto’s players and staff are to self-isolate in the hotel attached to the stadium when not on the field.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said that modified quarantine model will lower the risk of players or staff spreading COVID-19 in Toronto.

“Yes absolutely the idea is that any players coming in, in let’s say a cohort or bubble quarantine situation, has strict protocols to mitigate risk and not to interact or spread illness to the surrounding community,” she said.

Thirty-one MLB players and seven staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during intake for the resumption of training, a rate of 1.2 per cent, the league said Friday.

The positive tests occurred among 19 of the 30 teams, according to results of the samples sent to the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in South Jordan, Utah.