Five words from Phillies managing partner John Middleton at the end of a press release announcing that five of his players and three staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 underscored that there are no guarantees for the return of professional sports in the United States in 2020.
“In terms of the implications of this outbreak on the Phillies’ 2020 season,” Middleton concluded, “the club declines comment, believing that it’s too early to know.”
It’s too early to know.
Months after sports leagues shut down, and despite the understanding across the sports world that COVID-19 cases were an inevitable part of any attempt to return to play, there’s still no clear path for conducting a season when those cases actually arise.
At a time when Major League Baseball and its Players Association are trying to negotiate the economics of a return plan, the outbreak among Phillies personnel demonstrates that even if the sides reach an agreement, the viability of a season is far from assured.
The eight positive tests — with 32 more people still awaiting results — as well as the Blue Jays’ decision (as reported by ESPN) to shut down their spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., highlight the fragility of efforts to resume sports in the face of a virus that hasn’t gone away and indeed is peaking in different parts of the country.
Notably, two of those surge areas are Florida and Arizona, the two states that serve as home for MLB’s spring training facilities. Also, the NBA’s plan to resume calls for all games to take place in Orlando, Fla. Against that backdrop, a cluster of positive tests at a spring training site in Florida — as well as another one that has shut down the Tampa Bay Lightning’s training facility — seemed all but inevitable.
“This just illustrates that it’s going to be the new normal in sports until we have a vaccine,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s not unexpected that it’s happening. We have to get used to the fact that we’re going to have this periodically happen when you have people engaging in the things that they used to engage in.
“We know it’s still around. We know it’s still spreading. There are over 20,000 cases every day in the United States.
“The outbreak that occurred at the Philadelphia Phillies training facility is in a state that right now is seeing an increase of the percent of positivity of tests. In states where the outbreak is less controlled than, say, Vermont, it’s not surprising to me.”
Florida had 3,207 confirmed cases Thursday, which was at the time the state’s highest single-day total, the Associated Press reported. On Friday, the state reported more than 3,800 cases.
As of Friday morning, before news of the Phillies outbreak, Red Sox team president/CEO Sam Kennedy said the Red Sox had yet to decide whether they’d conduct a spring training reboot at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers or at Fenway Park.
As of Friday afternoon, JetBlue Park remained open to a limited number of players and staff, with a Red Sox spokesperson saying fewer than 10 people were at the facility and subject to MLB social distancing protocols. However, on Friday night, MLB shut down all spring training locations for deep cleaning and disinfecting. When (if?) the sites reopen, players must test negative for COVID-19 before returning.
But this outbreak almost surely won’t be the last.
What does it mean, then, that such outbreaks aren’t surprising — and that more cases seem inevitable? Are sports leagues in a different place than they were in March, when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 quickly prompted the NBA to suspend its season, with the other professional sports immediately following suit?
It’s worth noting the scale of delays that occurred as a result of positive tests in sports leagues. The NBA is hoping to resume in July, more than four months after Gobert and other players were infected. In Japan, the Nippon Professional Baseball League had its Opening Day on Friday, after a delay of nearly two months that resulted in part from three minor leaguers testing positive during spring training in late March.
It remains to be seen whether leagues are forced to react in similar fashion now. If protocols allow for cases to be isolated to one team, or to small pockets of cases, then it’s possible that sports won’t have to cease operations even if an outbreak hits a team. Perhaps seasons can still proceed with limited numbers of infections, much like 2014 and 2017, when the NHL dealt with mumps outbreaks that did not halt those seasons.
“I don’t necessarily think that you will see, in the future, blanket shutdowns of sports leagues based on this,” said Adalja. “If this is confined to one team, you can probably come up with a way to deal with it — especially since the season hasn’t started.
“If this happens during the season, they’re going to have to have some way of working this all out and making sure that it’s not putting players, coaches, and umpires at undue risk. I don’t think you necessarily have to shut everything down each time, but you have to be aggressive about it and you have to work very quickly to mitigate it.”
Even with protocols and mitigation, there are no guarantees. The best that leagues will be able to achieve before the introduction of a vaccine is a risk that is deemed tolerable by players and owners.
Negotiations for the start of an MLB season have been shaped in no small part by owners’ concerns about the possibility of losing a postseason (and its significant media revenue) to another wave of the virus. The spread of COVID-19 among several Phillies serves as a reminder of how easily plans can be disrupted.
Sports can’t be insulated from the pandemic. Four months after Gobert’s positive test, that reality may influence both how players and owners view the safety of conducting a season as well as the likelihood of being able to complete it.
Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report.