CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Bryce Harper went grocery shopping the other day. He hasn't stopped high-fiving his Phillies teammates. After coming out of a game earlier this week, he brought his 6-month-old son, Krew, into the clubhouse at Spectrum Field.
"I live, man," the star right fielder said Tuesday. "I don't worry about a disease or a virus."
Yet here was Harper, on the first day of Major League Baseball’s drastic new protocols to try to prevent the coronavirus from infiltrating its teams’ facilities, standing in a tunnel behind the Phillies’ clubhouse and chit-chatting with a semicircle of eight reporters while standing approximately 8 feet from them.
Just following orders, right?
"Yes, sir," Harper said, motioning to one scribe as he wound up to deliver the punchline. "I'd give [him] a hug right now."
Honestly, Harper doesn’t know if any of this is will work, if restricting access to clubhouses except for “essential personnel” -- all the while still welcoming paying customers into ballparks to watch spring-training games that don’t count -- is actually keeping anybody safer.
But that's beside the point. Faced with the global spread of the COVID-19 contagion -- and less than three weeks from the start of baseball season -- nobody knows what to do. Not the players. Not the teams. Not even the folks in the commissioner's office on Park Avenue.
“I think we’re all in uncharted territory,” Harper said. “We’ve never seen this. We’ve never done this. I think everybody is trying to do what is right, I guess you could say.”
Even if nobody knows what that is.
The Phillies walked into this new, weird reality Tuesday morning. First baseman Rhys Hoskins said there was “noticeably less” traffic in the clubhouse, the result of an edict handed down by the commissioner’s office Monday night.
Once the NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer agreed to limit access to their locker rooms, MLB decided to follow. On a conference call Monday evening, the league defined “essential” personnel as medical and training staffs, equipment managers, and travel and public-relations officials, according to Phillies president Andy MacPhail.
“They didn’t want front-office types in there,” MacPhail said, “major or minor [leagues].”
On Day 1, security guards were strict about enforcement, turning away multiple player-development staffers who tried to come over from the minor-league side of the Carpenter Complex. A longtime Phillies scout wasn’t allowed into the clubhouse, either. Reporters clustered near two picnic tables outside the clubhouse and made interview requests of players through media-relations staffers.
“It’s different. Definitely different,” said Hoskins, the Phillies’ representative in the players’ union. “[Coronavirus] is something that we don’t know a whole lot about. There are all these numbers floating around, but until we know exactly what’s going on, I think at this point I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
But while Phillies players have been advised to take hygienic precautions and were recently instructed not to sign autographs for fans before games, neither Hoskins nor Harper has changed their behavior away from the ballpark. Other than pitcher Aaron Nola, who is dealing with flu symptoms, nobody is choosing to self-quarantine. Nola even returned to the clubhouse after one day away.
"I still go to the grocery store and buy groceries," Harper said. "The person in front of me the other day was saying, 'I can't believe I'm buying groceries right now.' And I'm like, 'OK, you still have to eat.' A can of soup might have something on it. You never know. You could come in contact with it."
And what about the fans? While MLB’s measures are designed to shield players from person-to-person contact, at least with outsiders, teams continue to sell tickets and fans are packing stadiums across Florida and Arizona, buying concessions and using public facilities, including restrooms.
MacPhail said MLB is “not even close” to shuttering ballparks, although he noted that the situation is fluid. With opening day more than two weeks away, there’s still a chance that games could be canceled or played in empty stadiums.
Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League announced Monday that the start of its season will be delayed. Closer to home, the Philadelphia Health Department is recommending that city residents consider not attending public gatherings with more than 5,000 expected attendees. Citizens Bank Park holds 43,000 people.
"The situation is evolving daily, hourly," MacPhail said. "You just have to deal with it as best you can as it evolves."
LeBron James said recently that he won’t play if the NBA shuts out fans. Harper wouldn’t go nearly so far, although he said he would be attending Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey games if he was still home. Hoskins, a year-round Philadelphia resident and frequent attendee of Eagles and Sixers games, said he probably wouldn’t rethink going to games before adding that he’s “not sure.”
"Especially as more information comes out, I think those things change," he said, "and they change pretty quickly."