COVID, vaccine mandates threaten to disrupt season

Year 3 of COVID figures to be less horrific and haunting than the first two. Vaccines have allowed for a safe loosening of restrictions while impatience and disaffection push us further into unmitigated maskless “normalcy.” But, as tiresome as this fact has become, the pandemic isn’t over. And even as a new MLB labor deal will allow for a full 162-game season, protocols at the sport, city and country level figure to affect a third baseball season in new and disruptive ways.

After two years of COVID-induced nomadic uncertainty, the Blue Jays are back in Toronto for all 81 home games for the first time since 2019. But this puts them on the other side of a Canadian border that requires all visitors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The Canadian government announced that as of Jan. 15, groups that had previously been exempt from this mandate no longer would be. “Professional and amateur athletes” were mentioned explicitly.

The Blue Jays themselves are unaffected by this — and apparently unsympathetic to their rivals who are — but for visiting teams, this means unvaccinated players will not be able to make the trip for any road series in Toronto. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, those players can be placed on the restricted list, losing pay and service time, which is used to calculate arbitration and eligibility for free agency.

Unless they make it public, an individual player’s vaccine status is not necessarily known — although, as you’ll see, can often be deduced in the absence of a clear answer. But last year, MLB regularly announced aggregate vaccine rates for all players and personnel who interacted closely with players. As part of the 2021 health and safety protocols, teams that reached 85% vaccination had COVID restrictions lowered. By the end of the season, six teams hadn’t reached that threshold, but over 85% of all players and applicable personnel were fully vaccinated.

The New York Yankees, who will play nine games in Toronto this year, reached the threshold in 2021. The Boston Red Sox, who will play 10 games north of the border, did not. But this week, three Red Sox players told reporters that they’ve gotten vaccinated since last season — or intend to, now that it’ll affect their competitiveness in a more direct way. Xander Bogaerts and Christian Arroyo both got vaccinated in the offseason and Kevin Plawecki says he will this spring.

“At the end of the day, I want to be here for the guys,” Plawecki told Sports Illustrated. “Those 10 games mean a lot. I want to be there for them.”

Yankees star Aaron Judge dodged a question about whether he is vaccinated against COVID. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NY mandate could impact Yankees, Mets

Meanwhile, the Yankees’ three-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate Aaron Judge has refused to answer questions about his vaccine status. We can’t know exactly what that means, but if it’s a way of avoiding saying he’s not vaccinated, the Yankees could have bigger concerns beyond the series played in Toronto.

Even as COVID restrictions limiting entry to indoor activities have been lifted in New York City, a mandate enacted late last year stipulates that all private in-person employees must be vaccinated — including professional athletes. This is why the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving can attend a home game as a spectator, but can’t play in it.

Yankees pitcher Zack Britton, a member of the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee, said the union was aware of Irving’s situation during the CBA negotiations.

“I think the indoor-outdoor venue was maybe like a little bit of a question mark on that,” he said, “But I think it was something that we knew might be something we needed to tackle before the season starts.”

Yesterday, a City Hall spokesperson confirmed to the Daily News that, yes, even for outdoor baseball games, the mandate will apply to Yankees players and Mets players.

In other words, unless something changes, unvaccinated players on both teams — and the Mets were one of the six below the 85% vaccination threshold last season — will not be allowed to play in 81 home games.

Of course, something could exchange. Opening day is still three weeks away and invested parties at the team, league, and union level are in communication with the city.

“I’m looking forward to speaking to Major League Baseball, as we put our heads together with our medical team and figure out how we come up with a solution here,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said on Wednesday. “That’s my goal. My goal is to come up with a solution where we’re safe, to get our economy back up and operating and don’t change the progress we have made.”

Yankees chairman Hal Steinbrenner said “those discussions have really just begun,” when pressed for detail, but largely deferred all inquiries to team president Randy Levine.

“Randy Levine’s dealing with City Hall about that right now,” he said, “and that’s really about all I got for you on that regard. He’s on it.”

Testing gives way to health screenings

Local ordinances in Toronto and New York supersede anything MLB implements, but for the third year in a row, the league and the players agreed to COVID-specific health and safety protocols as of this week. The strict testing and mask mandates of the past two seasons have been replaced with daily health screenings. And after initial intake, players will be tested only when they show symptoms of COVID.

In the event that a player does test positive, teams will still conduct contact tracing. Vaccinated close contacts will not have to quarantine, but do have to test negative throughout the following week. Unvaccinated close contacts will have to quarantine for at least five days and meet a series of criteria to return to the field. If a team sustains an outbreak of at least three players testing positive in a five-day span — and even under the strict guidelines and constant testing last year, outbreaks affected a handful of teams — all players, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a mask in indoor facilities.

What figures to matter the most, though, is what will happen in the event that COVID disruptions do become a part of the 2022 baseball season.

Last year, the league couldn’t even get through opening day without a COVID postponement, and once again, MLB retains the right “to relocate Club(s) to neutral sites, Spring Training sites, or other Clubs’ home ballparks, and/ or reschedule games contained in the 2022 championship season schedule, if necessary, for health/safety reasons, to comply with governmental restrictions, or to complete the schedule.”

The same is true of the postseason. “Bubble” playoffs may already feel like a distant memory, an unpleasant relic of a harrowing 2020. But if there is anything to be learned from the first 24 months of pandemic-affected life, it’s to prepare for the worst. Protocols drafted in March will have to cover high-stakes games played in October. The pandemic has taken a turn for the worse in less time than that before.

And so the most important stipulation could end up being the one that says MLB can, with the union’s consent, “also implement additional health and safety protocols during the 2022 championship season and/or postseason” deemed necessary in consultation with medical experts.

Hopefully that won’t matter, by the World Series the world will be different, better in at least this one way. The baseball stories will be about baseball again. But we’re not there yet.

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