Central to its plan for launching the 2020 season, Major League Baseball intends to work with a Utah-based lab that will offer widespread COVID-19 testing to players and essential staff.
The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, which conducts MLB’s tests for performance-enhancing drugs, would administer and collect tests for COVID-19 and turn around the results within 24 hours, commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday night in a CNN town hall. With that system of testing, MLB believes players could be tested twice per week during the course of an abbreviated season.
"We feel comfortable that by doing multiple tests a week and trying to minimize that turnaround time that we're doing everything humanly possible to make sure that the players are safe," said Manfred, who added that players would receive daily temperature checks.
Manfred said he’s “hopeful” that there will be some semblance of a season this year. Without it, he estimated that losses for the industry “could approach $4 billion.” MLB grossed a record $10.7 billion in revenues last year, according to Forbes.
MLB detailed its testing plan over approximately 80 pages in the return-to-play proposal that it presented to the Players Association this week. MLB is working with various medical experts, including Dr. Ali S. Khan of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, to put together the protocols.
Manfred told CNN that MLB has been advised that the leagues won’t have to suspend the season if/when a player or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. The Korean Baseball Organization, which began play two weeks ago in South Korea, has indicated it will shut down for three weeks in the event of a positive test, a circumstance that has not yet arisen.
"The positive individual will be removed from the rest of the group," Manfred said. "There will be a quarantine arrangement in each facility and in each city, and then we'll do contact tracing for the individuals that we believe there was contact with and point-of-care testing for those individuals to minimize the likelihood that there's been a spread."
It remains to be seen whether MLB's testing plans will be met with satisfaction from players. Likewise, the medical community figures to offer an opinion.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said last week that it would be more realistic for a sports league to reopen in a quarantined environment, at least at the outset. MLB moved away from its concept of isolating all 30 teams in Arizona and playing games at Chase Field in Phoenix and a dozen nearby spring-training ballparks, an idea that was met with resistance from players who didn’t want to leave their families during a pandemic.
“If you could do it out of the box in a bubble and you could do it safely, people are going to then be more comfortable taking the next step and the next step and the next step,” Emanuel said by phone. “It’s like an entire opening up of the economy. You can’t do it right away. You have to do each step. This is a process — go to step one, step two, step three. That’s why I think starting out with maybe more severe restrictions than all of us are keen on is probably going to be necessary and then you can dial back.”
Although player salaries will be a thorny issue in negotiations between baseball and the union and has received most of the attention this week, the health and safety of players, coaches and support personnel remains paramount. If MLB is unable to present a plan that makes the players feel comfortable returning to work in the midst of a pandemic, nothing else will matter.
“I don’t fear getting sick, but I do do understand where many people would, especially players that have preexisting conditions, older coaches and staff members, front-office people that may be in the environment,” Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price said by phone Thursday. “I totally get it. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to it or a right way to look at this. I think you respect anybody’s feelings. I hope we get a chance to play baseball this year, and I hope that if we are playing again that we don’t have a large collective fear of the environment we’re playing in. Only time will tell.”