In a close-to-home reminder that a deadly pandemic remains the ultimate arbiter of whether sports can return in 2020, the Phillies have reported Major League Baseball’s first known coronavirus outbreak at their spring-training facility in Clearwater, Fla.
Five players and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since Tuesday, the team said in a statement Friday, and dozens of other major- and minor-league players and employees are awaiting test results.
The names of the infected people -- which extends to family members (adults and children) who weren’t counted in the Phillies’ tally -- have not been released due to medical privacy law, but one source said reliever Tommy Hunter is among them. Most of the players who have tested positive are major-leaguers, according to a second source. Although none has required hospitalization, several are said to be symptomatic.
Eight staff members have tested negative, according to the team, while 32 others (20 players, including minor leaguers, and 12 staff members) have not yet gotten results.
Phillies managing partner John Middleton said Spectrum Field and the Carpenter Complex are closed “indefinitely” and will remain so “until medical authorities are confident that the virus is under control and our facilities are disinfected.”
The Phillies also are working to conduct contact tracing to gauge the extent of the outbreak. The Toronto Blue Jays shut their facility in nearby Dunedin, Fla., according to ESPN, after a pitcher exhibited COVID-19 symptoms. The pitcher reportedly had been with several Phillies minor leaguers recently.
The outbreak comes during a week in which MLB and the Players Association have continued to wage their public feud over the economics of a pandemic-shortened season, specifically how much the players will be paid and the length of the schedule.
Middleton wrote in a letter to employees last month that he remained “hopeful” that a season will be played, albeit likely without fans in attendance. But his final line from the team’s statement Friday resonated with uncertainty.
“In terms of the implications of this outbreak on the Phillies’ 2020 season, the club declines comment,” Middleton said, “believing that it is too early to know.”
The Phillies closed and sanitized their Clearwater complex after the postponement of spring training in March. But the facilities remained available to players who are recovering from injuries and a skeleton crew of staff members. Teams aren’t allowed to hold organized workouts, but many of those players were training several times per week, mostly on back fields, a source said.
Although the Phillies had not officially reopened the doors in recent weeks, as some other teams have done at their spring-training sites, the group of players using the facility has grown slightly as negotiations for a season have picked up.
After the Phillies and Blue Jays closed their facilities, the San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers and Houston Astros did the same. By late Friday night, USA Today reported that MLB ordered the closing of all 30 teams’ spring-training sites in Florida and Arizona for a thorough cleansing.
“It’s not a second wave of infections,” Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said last week. “It’s basically the same wave of infection that is hitting them later.”
Last month, MLB submitted for the Players Association’s review a 67-page first draft of a health-and-safety manual that would take effect if spring training resumes. The protocols included virus testing “multiple” times per week but didn’t stipulate how often, and self-quarantine for an indeterminate amount of time for anyone who tests positive.
But what if multiple players from one team test positive? Would the entire team have to quarantine? Would MLB have to shut down?
The health-and-safety manual also notes that team doctors “will offer to advise on the care and treatment of any family or household members.” Beyond that, there’s little within the MLB protocols to address the exposure of families to the virus.
Citing medical privacy law, an MLB spokesperson declined to comment Friday on the Phillies’ outbreak or whether it changes the protocols set forth in the 67-page manual. The Players Association was made aware of the positive tests but didn’t comment.
The Phillies’ outbreak and the symptomatic Blue Jays pitcher intersect with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s temporary closing of training facilities because players and staff reportedly tested positive for coronavirus. Clearwater is adjacent to Tampa, between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Tampa is also 74 miles from Orlando, where the NBA and MLS are planning to stage their returns in a quarantined area of Disney World.
“I think players right now -- the money obviously is a factor for them -- but I think they’re really worried about their safety,” former Phillies shortstop/manager Larry Bowa, now a senior adviser with the team, said recently. “I’ve been in clubhouses for a long time, and just the flu alone, I’ve seen where a guy has the flu on a Monday and by Friday, you’ve got 12 guys with the flu. All it’s going to take is one guy.”
The Phillies have eight -- and maybe counting.