An outbreak of COVID-19 led to the indefinite shutdown of the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla., on Friday, hours before the Toronto Blue Jays reportedly shut down their facility nearby after one player displayed symptoms.
The ramifications of the shutdowns may spread far beyond two baseball teams, however.
Besides making it more obvious that the highly contagious virus is surging through the population in states with laxer health and safety protocols, the development puts Major League Baseball and its players at greater risk of seeing their already halting efforts to stage the 2020 season result in the shortest possible schedule.
Also back in the conversation: the feasibility of playing any baseball at all.
By evening, in response to the Phillies and Blue Jays developments, MLB decided to temporarily shut down all spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona for a deep cleaning and disinfection procedure. Once the cleaning is complete, every employee will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test before being allowed to re-enter.
The other baseball team with facilities in the immediate Tampa area is the New York Yankees, who in March reported that one of their minor leaguers had tested positive.
Fifteen teams train in Florida each spring. The Blue Jays’ home in Dunedin is 5 miles from Clearwater. The Pirates train 32 miles away in Bradenton, the Tigers 53 miles away in Lakeland.
The Red Sox train in Fort Myers, 138 miles due south.
The scope of the Phillies outbreak is yet to be determined, but NBC Sports Philadelphia reported that 32 more people — 20 major and minor leaguers, plus staff — are awaiting test results. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that many family members, both adults and children, also have tested positive.
“The Phillies are committed to the health and welfare of our players, coaches and staff as our highest priority,” said Phillies managing partner John Middleton in a statement, “and as a result of these confirmed tests, all facilities in Clearwater have been closed indefinitely to all players, coaches, and staff and will remain closed until medical authorities are confident that the virus is under control and our facilities are disinfected.
“In terms of the implications of this outbreak on the Phillies’ 2020 season, the club declines comment, believing that it is too early to know.”
Other sports may begin to face increasing headwinds as they attempt to restart in the face of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people in the US, and is closing in on a half-million worldwide.
The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning temporarily shut down their training facility Friday after several players and staff members tested positive. And an assistant coach for Tom Brady’s new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, tested positive, according to ESPN.
The NBA is planning on staging its return in a quarantined area of Disney World in Orlando, 74 miles from Tampa.
Major League Soccer plans on returning with a tournament at the Disney complex beginning July 8. And the WNBA plans on playing a 22-game season and playoffs at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.
On Friday, the Florida Department of Health reported its highest single-day increase of new positive tests, 3,822. Overall, the state has reported 89,748 positive cases with 3,104 deaths.
In Arizona, where the 15 other MLB teams train in and around the Phoenix area, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are also on the rise. On Friday, Arizona announced 3,246 new cases, a single-day record eclipsing the previous record reached Thursday at 2,519.
Since COVID-19 shut down spring training March 12, baseball’s owners and players have been struggling for more than three months to devise a plan to hold a safe and abbreviated 2020 season. Before the news from Clearwater broke, the sides were tentatively moving closer to an endgame.
No talks were scheduled for Friday, but the developments in Florida can be expected to play a significant role the rest of the way.
Each side has emphasized that the safety of all players and employees is paramount.
Right now, it’s the owners’ turn to respond to the players’ latest offer from Thursday of playing 70 games. The owners’ offer on Wednesday was for 60 games.
Length of season has been a contentious point for reasons other than the fact that it will cost the owners approximately $260 million in player salaries more to play 70 games rather than 60.
The owners’ team of medical consultants have called for a shorter season, to end by Sept. 27, in order to complete the playoffs by the end of October, when a second wave of COVID-19 is predicted by some experts to hit as the weather cools.
The Phillies news may generate a strong preference among owners to not meet the players at around 65 games and instead play no more than 60 or even stage a shorter season of 48-54 games.
Said one major league source: “The one thing we all wholeheartedly agree on is protecting everyone’s health and safety. Our own experts and even Dr. [Anthony] Fauci are telling us not to go deeper into the calendar, because that’s when the risk of a second wave will be there.
“So that is a major factor as to why it makes sense to play less rather than more, even though playing more would be great for many obvious reasons. Playing 70 games instead of 60 lengthens the season in a way that our health experts are cautioning against.”