Jesse Dougherty: The Washington Post, June 3, 2020
One season is ending, another is beginning, and the intersection of the two — Major League Baseball and Bundesliga soccer — shows how risky it is to restart sports in the United States right now.
On Saturday, Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen will meet in the German Cup final in Berlin, capping a successful six-week schedule. Across the Atlantic Ocean and all over North America, MLB will begin summer camp during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The models for the two are similar in that, unlike the NBA, they are operating outside of a bubble, traveling between cities and having players, coaches and staff live at home.
But here’s a key difference: Germany’s response to the pandemic was much more successful — and much more proactive — than the United States’. It enabled the Bundesliga, the country’s top-tier soccer league, to resume in mid-May and handle sporadic coronavirus cases. Baseball, on the other hand, is about to make a similar attempt in a much different environment.
The United States topped 50,000 new daily cases for the first time Wednesday. That was more than a fourth of Germany’s total cases to date. Germany has had around 9,000 coronavirus deaths, and by mid-May, when soccer returned, it had almost completely flattened the curve.
“Germany was able to pull it off, but we are not Germany. Many of the markets that MLB wants to play in do not look like Germany,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “The baseline risk is much higher. So unfortunately, because of our response to covid-19, sports leagues need stricter return plans, and I don’t know that MLB has really wrestled with that yet.”
Both plans hinge on players, coaches, staff and their families being cautious and smart away from team facilities. That’s the reality of not playing inside a bubble, which the NBA will use in Florida to negate travel and limit exposure to the outside world. But MLB and the Bundesliga took near-opposite approaches for regulating off-site behavior.
MLB’s 113-page operations manual dedicated one paragraph to it, writing individuals “must exercise care,” adding that they should avoid restaurants, bars and other crowded areas. MLB left each team to craft and enforce its own policy. Four players, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss a sensitive topic, said this is MLB’s way of avoiding responsibility should an outbreak occur.
Here is where baseball picks up this weekend, starting with testing. Before training begins, all players, coaches and staff have to take a coronavirus test and self-quarantine while awaiting results. After that, they will be tested every other day. A lab in suburban Salt Lake City will be tasked with fielding thousands of tests and turning around results in “approximately 24 hours,” according to MLB’s operations manual. There is, however, already skepticism within the sport that results will come that quickly.
Before training began in Germany, players, coaches and staff did a week-long quarantine at a hotel. They ate meals separately and, each morning, completed a questionnaire to check for possible symptoms. Testing was frequent during that period, then slowed to around twice a week during the season. The Bundesliga contracted five labs to process results and, according to news accounts, was comfortable doing so because the country wasn’t stretched for resources.
Since the Bundesliga was the first league to return, it provided a template for how to play outside of a bubble. But environmental influences serve as the trickiest element there. Baseball’s plan, while similar, is less detailed in critical areas, according to public health experts, and set to unfold where the virus is still rampant.
“The biggest risk for baseball is location,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research. “The greatest weakness of the plan is sending teams and having teams in states where the governor is unwilling to have strict rules.”
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