Say goodbye to seating capacity limits. Bid adieu to masking requirements for fully vaccinated fans. Signs of (mostly) normalcy will be everywhere this weekend at Citizens Bank Park.
Except for the Phillies’ dugout and clubhouse.
Most teams — 20, to be precise, according to the most recent update from Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association — have reached the league-imposed 85% vaccination threshold that permits them to ease many of the COVID-19 protocols that limited their activities since before the start of last season. Two additional clubs have reached the 85% mark and will be considered fully vaccinated by this time next week.
The Phillies are not there yet and probably won’t be “any time soon,” manager Joe Girardi said this week.
So, as society reopens around them, the Phillies must continue to adhere to a set of restrictions, notably social distancing in the clubhouse, masking for all non-players on the field and in the dugout, and stringent rules on the road, including not dining indoors at restaurants. Even card games in the clubhouse are verboten.
“Obviously you’d like to have more freedoms,” said Girardi, who is fully vaccinated. “I think we all would. I think we all get tired of wearing our mask in situations. I would like to go back to be able to go back to normal. But it’s not going to happen, it looks, any time soon for us unless Major League Baseball changes some of their protocols.”
It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen, either.
As the nation’s infection rate declines, the commissioner’s office is consulting with medical experts and players union leadership about potential adjustments to the protocols. So far, though, there hasn’t been an inclination to ease up on teams that don’t reach the 85% threshold. After widespread outbreaks last year among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals caused scheduling disruptions and threatened competitive integrity, MLB is wary of letting down its guard too much.
And so, Tier 1 personnel — defined as major-league and triple-A players, managers, coaches, trainers, and medical staff, and some front-office members — are still receiving regularly scheduled COVID-19 testing. Through Friday, MLB and the Players Association reported a total of 64 positive tests since the beginning of spring training (36 players and 28 staff from among 25 teams). But they also announced that 82.9% of all Tier 1 personnel were considered fully vaccinated, and 85.2% had received at least their first dose of a vaccine.
Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer recently told reporters that it was “disappointing” that his team hadn’t reached the 85% mark. But the Phillies have maintained that vaccination is a personal decision.
Neither Girardi nor president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is comfortable pushing players or staff to get vaccinated even as the team announced that it will offer two free tickets to fans 18 and older who get a free one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at Citizens Bank Park during next week’s series against the Atlanta Braves.
Some players, notably Phillies union representative Rhys Hoskins, said they planned to get shots when they became eligible. Others, including closer Héctor Neris, expressed reservations or said they didn’t intend to get vaccinated. Dombrowski said the players did attend a group presentation before a game in Atlanta in April to learn more about the vaccines.
“That’s a personal choice, and I can’t tell a player or a coach, or whoever it might be in our traveling party, that you have to get the shot,” Girardi said. “I don’t have any frustration. I would say if there’s any frustration it’s that I’m vaccinated and that I’m outside and that I have to wear a mask. That would be my frustration.
“Because the CDC says if you’re vaccinated and you’re outside, go have fun, right? And as it gets hotter ... when it’s cold, the mask ain’t so bad. But as it’s getting warmer, you don’t really want to have it on.”
Indeed, as cities across the country reopen, there figures to be a natural temptation for players to want to be out and about. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, whose team also hasn’t reached the 85% mark, said recently that he worries about having to put players on the COVID-19 restricted list while they quarantine after violating protocol on the road.
Girardi doesn’t share that concern, believing that the Phillies are disciplined in their behavior after living with the protocols since last summer.
But Hoyer and others contend that it’s a competitive advantage to reach 85% because it decreases the chances that players will be quarantined for contact tracing. The Phillies lost pitchers Matt Moore and José Alvarado for a week in April because they were in contact with someone who tested positive. Moore, who said he’s vaccinated, hasn’t regained his spot in the starting rotation.
Girardi said the restrictions don’t interfere with the Phillies’ game preparations. Although they must wear masks and maintain social distance during scouting meetings for pitchers and hitters, they make do by convening in larger indoor spaces.
“The [batting] cage becomes a pretty big room,” Girardi said. “It’s not how you want to do it, but we’re able to do it.”
Unless the Phillies reach the 85% threshold, it’s the way it will have to be.