A sea change will take place on Saturday at Fenway Park, when capacity restrictions are lifted and fully vaccinated patrons of the ballpark will no longer be required to mask.
But change will be slower to come to the Red Sox dugout and clubhouse this season — if it comes at all. While a majority of Major League Baseball teams now have reached the vaccination thresholds that allow them to relax some of their COVID-19 protocols and restrictions, the Red Sox are not among them.
MLB and the MLB Players Association announced on Friday that 16 of the 30 teams had seen at least 85 percent of their Tier 1 personnel — a group that includes big league and Triple-A players and coaching staff, trainers and medical staff, and a small cadre of front office members — become fully vaccinated. Additionally, three more teams have had at least 85 percent of their Tier 1 personnel receive their final dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with full vaccination status coming in the next two weeks.
“We’re not in that mix,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who is fully vaccinated. “We got closer two weeks ago but then this week we didn’t make any progress. It is what it is.”
Across MLB, 81.2 percent of Tier 1 individuals are considered fully vaccinated, and 84.5 percent of all Tier 1 personnel have received at least their first injection of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Cora emphasized that the decisions of Tier 1 personnel in Worcester factor into the team’s ability to reach the 85 percent vaccination threshold. He said that, as was the case with the big league team, there had been no progress in the past week in getting more Tier 1 individuals vaccinated in Triple-A.
Arrival at the 85 percent vaccination milestone comes with certain team benefits, including the removal of masking requirements in the dugout and bullpen, permission to resume team activities such as clubhouse card games, the opportunity to spend time indoors with other vaccinated individuals such as family members on the road, the ability to resume dining indoors at restaurants, and more.
Cora wasn’t overly concerned about the inability to relax protocols at the ballpark. However, he did worry that while Red Sox players have been good about abiding by the COVID-19 rules to this point, players might end up being quarantined for failing to adhere to guidelines in their off-the-field behavior.
“I think [the lack of relaxed protocols] impacts when we leave the stadium,” said Cora. “That worries me a little bit because we, as a group, we cannot take advantage of certain rules, you know, or break the rules in this situation, because we’re not at 85 percent.”
Unvaccinated players are also subject to seven-day quarantine periods if they come in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. By contrast, vaccinated players do not need to enter close contact quarantine unless they become symptomatic.
Cora has remained consistent throughout the spring that vaccination is an individual decision. But on Friday, he wondered aloud how he would feel if a player who hadn’t been vaccinated landed on the COVID-19 restricted list for a week for violating protocols.
“It’ll be very difficult for me and respecting the decision of each individual [if] somebody gets put on quarantine because they broke a rule because he’s not vaccinated,” said Cora. “I always wonder, how are we going to react [if] somebody just decides ... to go to a restaurant or to a spa or go out, and then all of a sudden, that person misses seven days because you have to be put in quarantine because you broke the rules.”
To date, there have been no such incidents for the Red Sox. But with the accelerating reopening of the country, Cora expressed concern that members of the team will be tempted to engage in activities that will remain prohibited for as long as the team remains below the 85 percent vaccination threshold.
“This group has been very disciplined,” said Cora. “But at the same time, Monday’s a holiday. You can feel it. The summer is here. The world is moving forward. And hopefully, you know, we can stay disciplined throughout the process.”
The extent of that discipline will remain elevated so long as the team’s vaccination rate remains unaltered.