MLB’s coronavirus protocols emphasize prevention, peril

It has been described by those who have read it as “overwhelming” and “intimidating” and “too much” and “what’s necessary.”

It is both exhaustively thorough and occasionally vague. It is assuring and alarming.

It mandates caution and points the way to calamity.

Major League Baseball’s operations manual addressing procedures for the 2020 season in light of COVID-19 was 101 pages long when it was delivered to teams earlier this week and is evolving pretty much by the day with addendums and appendixes. Some details about how this season will go down are still being worked through, as questions and concerns arise from clubs. There is language throughout that says various people and/or committees can address certain individual situations.

There is nothing in the manual that addresses what happens if a large number of players test positive or stipulates what might be considered a large number. A league source said an agreement between the league and the Players Association gives MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred the right to suspend the season if the “integrity of competition” is jeopardized.

The detailed protocols give reason to believe players and staff will be highly protected against contracting the virus while at the ballpark. But because the league is not quarantining participants and those at ballparks will also be going home and elsewhere, there is ample opportunity for exposure. And the manual outlines steps that make it not all that far-fetched that half a team (or more) could have to be quarantined at the same time for at least a short time.

The manual primarily pertains to what it refers to as “Covered Individuals,” which are players and up to 66 other members of the organization who are part of Tier 1 or Tier 2 designations (more on that later).

In addition to the frequent testing and symptom monitoring at ballparks, Covered Individuals (CI) will be given an oral digital thermometer to take their temperature twice in succession around the same time each day as part of a “Home Screen” that includes answering questions on a mobile app regarding potential exposure to COVID-19. This must be done every day of summer camp and the season, even when the CI is not going to a team facility.

A CI who registers a temperature of 100.4 or higher must self-isolate, which means they cannot go to the ballpark, and will be given a COVID-19 test. At that time, contact tracing is to be conducted and all other team employees deemed to have come in contact with the symptomatic player are to be tested and monitored for symptoms and to self-isolate until test results are known (approximately 24 hours).

Additionally, all areas of a facility in which the symptomatic player had recent contact are to be disinfected (beyond the regular cleanings called for in the manual).

Two negative tests given 24 hours apart are necessary before the symptomatic person will be allowed at the team facility. The person must also be symptom-free and receive physician approval to return.

A player who tests positive must be fever-free for 72 hours, test negative twice in 24 hours, complete an antibody test and be deemed no longer a threat to spread COVID-19 by the team physician and a “Joint Committee” consisting of one medical and one non-medical representative of both MLB and the MLBPA.

A player can be placed on the COVID-19 Related Injured List without testing positive. He could be placed there because of a confirmed exposure or if he displays symptoms “requiring self-isolation for further assessment.”

Some other caveats from the manual:

  • Tier 1 status is for on-field personnel — up to 126 people (60 players) in summer camp and 96 people (30 players) at the start of the season. Tier 2 is limited to 38 people per club and can include ownership, some front office members, communications and clubhouse staff, groundskeepers and a few others at each club’s discretion. These two tiers are the only people allowed in restricted areas of team facilities and to be members of a team’s traveling party.
  • Tier 3 is everyone else allowed at ballparks. Personnel in Tier 1 or Tier 2 are prohibited from entering areas designated for Tier 3, and vice versa.
  • All camp participants are required to complete a COVID-19 educational course, which will cover rules and safety recommendations. They will also undergo a COVID-19 test and antibody test and isolate until the results are known.
  • Camp drills should be divided into groups of five or fewer when possible. The manual includes diagrams of suggested positioning of players during bullpen and batting cage sessions and on-field running and fielding drills. Pitchers are to be assigned their own baseballs for use in the bullpen. Balls used for batting practice must be cleaned and rotated out of use for five days.
  • The manual contains illustrations of suggested dugout seating, specifying six feet between each player, who should keep his glove, hat and water bottle in his seating area. There is no standing in stairwells, and players or staff are required to put a personal towel over the dugout railing when standing there. Players not expected to play in a game are to sit in the stands with four seats (side to side) and two rows (front to back) between them.
  • Phones in the dugout and bullpen are to be wiped with disinfectant after each use.
  • Due to the fact teams will have no more than three preseason games, umpires will be permitted to attend workouts “in order to track pitches in bullpens, live batting practice, and games.”
  • MLB has the right to “further restrict personal activities of players and staff” and even institute what the manual calls “bubble” protocols “if the Commissioner determines, after consultation with recognized medical experts, that there is a material change in circumstances such that it poses an unreasonable health and safety risk to players or staff to stage those games without implementing such procedures.” Teams can also be relocated “for health/safety reasons, to comply with governmental restrictions, or to complete the schedule. MLB also has the right to conduct some or all of the 2020 postseason in neutral sites (including other Clubs’ home ballparks).”
  • High-fives and other personal contact must be avoided and hand washing is required after incidental contact. Communal water dispensers, sunflower seeds and smokeless tobacco are prohibited, as is spitting. Players “should” wash their hands after every half-inning in which they handled the ball or equipment.
  • Meetings are to be held outside when possible, and communication by text message or video calls is encouraged. Indoor meetings that last longer than 15 minutes must allow for 36 square feet of separation for each participant (six feet on all sides).
  • Watching video at a shared monitor is prohibited, so all players will all be issued an iPad.
  • Auxiliary locker rooms, training rooms, dining areas and other team gathering spots must be constructed in ballparks to allow for six feet between players. This will be particularly necessary when making accommodations to host visiting team, as those clubhouses are smaller. That is especially true at Petco Park.
  • To discourage gathering, some furniture and all game tables should be removed from common areas. If the Padres want to continue one of their favorite pregame pastimes of playing H-O-R-S-E with a miniature basketball and goal, the ball will have to be frequently disinfected.
  • Players are prohibited from arriving in the clubhouse more than five hours before a game and must depart 90 minutes after its conclusion. There are exceptions for players undergoing treatment for injuries.
  • Covered Individuals are required to wear face coverings everywhere except the field. That includes managers and coaches in the dugout. Medical personnel are required to wear surgical masks at all times. Players and coaches are allowed to wear masks on the field provided they don’t violate the league’s marketing rules. Players must wear disposable surgical masks while in the training room.
  • Using saunas and spas is prohibited, but players can use cryotherapy units while wearing masks. Those units must be disinfected between uses.
  • “MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from Club facilities, but will expect the Covered Individuals on each Club to ensure that they all act responsibly.”
  • A team’s medical personnel must complete an MLB-approved course on conducting contact tracing.
  • Managers (or designated coaches) will still meet with umpires at home plate before games, but they will stand six feet from each other. Lineup cards will not be exchanged. Those will have been submitted electronically.
  • There might not be a need to read lips or have a microphone in order to hear what managers are yelling at umpires since any player or coach approaching an umpire to talk must maintain social distancing.
  • No minors will work as batboys or ball girls/boys. Team personnel will retrieve bats from near home plate. Players must carry their own pine tar rag and rosin bags.
  • Teams can take three taxi squad players on the road (and keep them with the team at home) provided one is a catcher. Those players do not get service time and are paid the minor league rate stipulated in their contract, though they do get the major league allowance of $108.50 for meals and incidentals.
  • Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals cannot use public transportation. They are allowed to use ride-share services in limited instances.
  • Before boarding a team charter, “each traveler should be given a sanitary bag that contains disinfectant wipes and personal hand sanitizer.”
  • “Where possible,” teams are supposed to stay on low floors of hotels so players can more easily use stairs instead of elevators. Hotels are supposed to provide a private entrance/exit for teams, and teams are to reserve a banquet area or lounge for meal service, as members of the traveling party are prohibited from leaving the hotel to dine out. Congregating in the lobby is discouraged.

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