In a memo sent to MLB teams Monday, commissioner Rob Manfred laid out the league’s “minimum health and safety standards” and said to prepare for a normal spring training and full regular season schedule. This comes after the league had floated the idea of pushing start dates back by a least a month in order to allow for better vaccine distribution.
As you might expect, the players union pushed back hard against that notion after losing out on nearly 75% of salaries in 2020. The union argued that teams were already comfortable with COVID protocols and could continue practicing them until such time as the pandemic is finally snuffed out. Widespread vaccinations are a huge part of that, but Manfred noted in that same memo that the league will not mandate them for fans.
Nor will MLB require proof of a negative COVID test or temperature checks at ballparks, leaving those matters up to individual teams. That’s really not much of a surprise, especially when the memo notes that “state and local authorities could mandate more restrictive standards and that all policies are subject to change as the public health situation in the United States changes.”
The league provided additional guidance to teams on the use of “pod” seating, in which tickets are sold in socially-distanced groups, for at least the early portion of the season. Fans will have to wear masks unless eating or drinking, social distancing must be enforced in various lines, and hand-sanitizing stations must be widely available. What’s more, fans will not be permitted to watch pregame activities unless the distanced seating arrangements are in place.
Fan protocols could obviously vary by team, particularly given the different regulations in states and municipalities, but the real key here is vaccine distribution that has been woefully inadequate to this point. Then again, maybe that’s an area in which MLB has an advantage over other sports given its aging fanbase.
Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted back in mid-December that anyone who wants a vaccine should be able to get one by early April, though that’s looking like a stretch at this point. However, two new vaccines on the horizon could provide a boost. In contrast to the current mRNA-based injections that must be super-cooled, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have developed more traditional vaccines based on weakened or dead forms of COVID’s spike protein.
Even better, the J&J version requires just a single dose instead of the double-dose required by the others. While those latter options are not yet approved for use in the United States yet, it’s expected they’ll be available as early as the end of the month and at least by the end of the first quarter. According to CDC data, only about 9 million people — a little more than one-third of the 25.5 million doses distributed — have received their first dose of the vaccine to this point.
As bad as that looks right now, there’s reason to believe both supply and distribution will increase and improve dramatically over the next few weeks. Regardless of your thoughts on the necessity of the vaccine itself, that’s a good sign for the return of baseball, not to mention something at least closely resembling normalcy in other areas.