The Toronto Blue Jays will be facing a unique situation when they open their summer training camp this weekend.
As the lone MLB team north of the Canada-U.S. border, they’ll have some added rules to follow — like self-isolating in the hotel when not at the field and being separated from family — to keep themselves and the general public safe amid the pandemic.
The Blue Jays had to ask for special permission from the Canadian government to use their Toronto stadium and were given the OK Thursday for training purposes only. A decision is still to be made on whether Toronto can host its home games during the regular season.
Team president Mark Shapiro says his players know what’s at stake with coming into Canada.
“We did not unilaterally make the decision, we made the decision with them,” Shapiro said on a conference call with reporters Thursday night. “Part of the understanding was that it was their responsibility to work with us to ensure this works.”
He added: “I think they felt better about the facility here. They felt better about being here, they felt better about the transition into the season, and better about our competitive chances to remain healthy if we were able to train here. So it was collaborative and co-operative from the start and they’ve been educated.”
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Holding camp in Toronto gets the Blue Jays away from their spring training facility in Florida, a state ravaged by COVID-19 lately.
Florida reported a record-high 10,109 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. Ontario’s new case total for the same day was 153.
But while training camps are set to begin around the league on Friday, some of the Blue Jays will be slightly delayed.
The team is currently completing intake screening in Dunedin, Fla., and each player needs two negative COVID tests before being cleared to train.
Shapiro said some of his players have already received two negatives and will start practising Friday in a “closed environment” in Dunedin. A private charter flight will leave for Toronto this weekend once more players are cleared, Shapiro added.
We’re coming home 💙<br><br>Our Summer Training Camp will be held at Rogers Centre! <a href=”https://t.co/OPKIjVPUl9″>pic.twitter.com/OPKIjVPUl9</a>
Later Thursday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it would waive the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for MLB on the grounds that the Jays’ plan “offers robust measures to mitigate the risk.”
“Pre- and regular-season games still need to be evaluated,” the agency said in a statement, adding it must approve of any changes to the plan.
Several Blue Jays players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 recently, as have plenty of other athletes over the last few weeks. The Blue Jays also had to shut down their spring training facility on June 19 after a player showed symptoms of the virus.
The plan to train in Toronto required government and public health approval at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. It relies heavily on players and staff isolating from the general public at Rogers Centre and the hotel attached to the stadium.
Teams visiting Toronto would also need to quarantine in the adjoining hotel when not on the field, something Shapiro said he has discussed with the Players Association, which has been “co-operative” with that plan.
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“It’s not much of a hardship for the visiting team,” Shapiro said. “Obviously [it will] be more limiting because the visiting team that comes in will not be allowed to leave the confines. … It’s the same intent of creating a bubble quarantine — charter flight, sterilized bus right to the hotel in the Roger Centre, never leaving that footprint until they’re done playing a three-game series.
“That would be the expectation for the visiting team.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory says he believes the preventative measures in place will help keep residents and players protected.
“I think that’s good for the city, and I think if people want to be critical of that, then so be it,” Tory said Thursday. “You’re going to have people who are subject to a very strict regime as to how they interact with each other, how they don’t interact with the rest of the city, how they are held in a virtual bubble as to where they can be when they’re in Toronto. That will really well protect the other citizens and the players from COVID-19.”
The abbreviated 60-game regular season is slated to start later this month and last 66 days.
Toronto will play the bulk of its schedule (40 games) against fellow AL East teams — 10 games each against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles — and the remaining 20 games against the NL East’s New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.
Shapiro said the likeliest option for home games — if they can’t stay in Toronto — would be TD Ballpark in Dunedin. He added that the team will continue to look into alternate plans.
Safety precautions will be taken throughout camp, Shapiro said.
The Blue Jays will not play exhibition games against other teams, but will have intrasquad matchups instead. Players will also work out in smaller groups rather than having 60 players on the field at once.
Modifications have also been made to Rogers Centre in an effort to make physical distancing easier. Players will be spaced out between four locker-room areas, for example, with every other sink taped off in bathrooms.
“This entire plan is not one that would be without any risk — we all understood that coming in, but at the same time, I’m still optimistic,” Shapiro said. “I’m still hopeful. I still feel like the upside of being able to bring the game back provides both the potential lift and distraction and enjoyment.
“And for me, just selfishly being able to see baseball again, see the joy in our players being able to play it again, even in a very different environment with some very different guidelines and parameters. I don’t think we could do it any more safely then we’re doing it.
“So I feel like our players will be of less risk than much of the general population.”