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MLB’s COVID-19 Plan Doesn’t Consider Everybody’s Safety

The league can’t just think of players and coaches as it dreams up a way to hold a baseball season. Thousands of lower-paid workers are involved too, and MLB’s latest proposal doesn’t seem to account for them.

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On Sunday, The New York Times published a piece about two people, out of billions in the world, affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Olivia and Raul De Freitas, a recently married teacher and butcher from South Africa, had been stranded in the Maldives for weeks because travel restrictions delayed their return from honeymoon. After every other guest fled the resort island, the De Freitas were the only ones left.

What first appeared to be an ironic story with Twilight Zone spirit—what if you were trapped in paradise forever?!—grew more harrowing when considering the resort’s staff. “Government regulations won’t allow any Maldivians to leave resorts until after they undergo a quarantine that follows their last guests’ departure,” the Times noted—meaning staff was stuck to “dote on the couple ceaselessly.” The couple that quixotically decided to travel abroad in late March hadn’t just doomed themselves to stranding, but all the workers who made their lives more comfortable, too.

That story came to mind when I read a new ESPN report Tuesday morning, detailing a possible plan to start the MLB season in May with all 30 teams isolated in Arizona. The idea itself would require “enormous and cumbersome” logistical work, Jeff Passan wrote, but essentially, it would require “players, coaching staffs, and other essential personnel [to] be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium.”

Plenty of prerequisite ifs would necessarily come first, from expanded testing to robust protocols “to ensure the health and safety of older managers, coaches, umpires, and other personnel,” Passan wrote. And soon after Passan’s report was published, MLB issued a statement that downplayed the idea. Yet still the possibility remains, as owners fret about lost dollars and fans lament the disappearance of their rooting interests, that such a scenario might flesh out more fully in the weeks ahead. Owners want sports. Fans want sports. Players and TV networks and the federal government want sports, too. And when that many constituencies come together—in particular, when that many rich and powerful constituencies come together—they often get their way.

But one crucial element necessary for the enactment of any “Baseball Biodome”–style plan is missing from these early drafts. It’s the Maldivian resort workers waiting on one couple, trapped by someone else’s flouting of the COVID-19 danger.

Baseball games don’t just need players and coaches and umpires. They also need grounds crews. They need trainers. They need janitors and laundry workers and security, and clubhouse attendants and team chefs and equipment personnel. Team hotels need almost all of those people, too. And games will likely need some sort of scouting or front office framework, and media members. They’ll certainly need television crews on site—even if announcers might be able to call games remotely, camera operators and producers would have to penetrate the biodome—if the goal is to provide entertainment for the masses without fans in the stands.

Thus, two possibilities present themselves. Either all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers spread across 15 stadiums and numerous hotels in Arizona would come into contact with the otherwise completely isolated players and coaches, risking an immediate piercing of the COVID-free bubble, or else all those hundreds (thousands?) of workers would need to be sequestered as well, in which case the logistical nightmare would amplify exponentially.

It’s one thing to ask MLB players earning an average of $4 million per year to leave their families for months to play a game—an extraordinarily tricky thing, of course, because even aside from the inherent difficulty such a situation presents, players could have children born in that time, or family members die from the virus, or any other number of circumstances that would complicate a case of complete isolation. But at least players have tremendous economic incentive to make a plan work; as Passan wrote, the sport’s leadership is hopeful that “the combination of receiving paychecks for playing and baseball’s return offering a respite to a nation beset by the devastation of COVID-19 would convince players to agree to the plan.”

But when that ask extends to workers in lower tax brackets, the whole notion transforms from foolishly optimistic to heartlessly rapacious. Add in the possibility that COVID-19 hospitalizations in Arizona project to peak in May, and it would be both irresponsible and self-defeating to pretend that sequestering would do its job completely. Already, 1,000-plus players and coaches would be squished into a 30-team MLB bubble: the default 780 players with 26-man rosters, plus coaches, plus extra players with expanded rosters. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reports that the league is “discussing the expansion of rosters to as many as 50 players to ensure the easy availability of substitutes.” Add to that contingent the scores more workers necessarily involved in the logistics of operating that bubble, and it’s difficult to imagine the virus not finding its way in.

And once it does, it’s equally difficult to imagine the virus not spreading. MLB can imagine alternatives all it wants—Passan reports considerations such as the elimination of mound visits, the installation of an electronic strike zone to allow umpires to move 6 feet away from catchers, and the elimination of the dugout in favor of putting players in the stands between innings—but in a sport that involves locker rooms and tag plays, pure social distancing cannot feasibly be maintained.

As MLB’s quick statement Tuesday morning demonstrated, the specifics of the 30-teams-in-an-Arizona-bubble plan aren’t close to actual implementation. Yet this critique also stands more broadly as sports hopefully, eventually, begin plotting their returns. The leagues’ chief decision-makers cannot focus only on the well-being of players and owners (and their bank accounts), but on that of the whole vast apparatus that undergirds the industry—if not for moral reasons, then for self-serving safety reasons, too: Any unwitting infected hotel worker who handles a player’s towels could spark a new spread among the very players the sports seek to protect. The impulse to brainstorm methods for a quick return is understandable, for reasons of wealth and comfort and a semblance of normalcy in an uncertain world. But so is traveling to a tropical island on a prepaid honeymoon, consequences be darned.