How should MLB respond to the Marlins' coronavirus outbreak?

Henry Bushnell
·12 min read

It took three days. Three days, at least 13 positive COVID-19 tests in one Major League Baseball clubhouse. During the first week of the MLB season, the coronavirus spread through the Miami Marlins. Players have been quarantined, and their next two games postponed. Monday’s game between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies – Miami’s opponent on opening weekend – was also postponed.

Beyond that, the league seems prepared to march ahead, up mountains of uncertainty. Yahoo Sports spoke with a variety of coronavirus experts to sift through that uncertainty, and address several key questions facing baseball. Most fit under one big umbrella: Where does MLB go from here?

Should the Marlins keep playing?

Easy answer, experts say: No.

Some recommend a 14-day quarantine. Others say five days at the very least – with 7-10 days a more responsible length. That means no games, no contact with one another whatsoever.

Commissioner Rob Manfred seems to be taking a different approach.

“If the testing results are acceptable, the Marlins will resume play in Baltimore on Wednesday against the Orioles,” he said Monday. Among multiple problems with that plan, experts say, is that it’s unlikely testing results will be “acceptable.”

“Technically, if you stood the Marlins in place right now, and tested everybody for the next five days, and found no more new cases, I suppose it wouldn't be crazy to let them start playing again,” says Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University’s Oxford College. “But that's not what you're going to find. Or, I would be stunned if it is.”

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 24: The Miami Marlins celebrate their Opening Day win against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 24, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Marlins defeated the Phillies 5-2. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Three days into their season and the Miami Marlins have at least 11 players testing positive for the coronavirus. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Why can’t the Marlins keep playing?

Twelve Marlins players and two coaches have reportedly tested positive. How likely is it that other Marlins have contracted the virus, and haven’t yet tested positive, but will in the coming days?

“Very likely, unfortunately,” says Kathleen Bachynski, an epidemiologist at Muhlenberg College.

“Quite likely,” says Ron Waldman, an epidemiologist at George Washington University.

“Yeah,” says Jared Baeten, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. “If it was one player, totally different. But clearly, to get to 13, there are not 13 separate introductions [of the virus] into the Marlins organization. There is transmission within the team. And if there is transmission in the team, there's great chance that there is still unrecognized transmission within the team.”

In other words, the three Marlins players who received positive test results Sunday morning spent Saturday with teammates while infectious. The seven players and two coaches whose tests came back positive Monday morning spent Sunday with teammates while infectious. If those teammates contracted the virus this past weekend, however, we won’t know whether they have or haven’t for at least another few days. We probably can’t be sure any of them isn’t infected until sometime next week. Because the virus takes time to incubate.

“You cannot assume that you have identified everybody who is infected,” Binney says.

Would super-frequent testing allow the Marlins to safely continue playing?

No, because even MLB’s expedited testing process comes with a lag time between test and result. “Even if you're doing regular testing,” Binney says, “you have this space, in between when somebody gets infectious and when you get a positive result back, where they can be spreading the virus.” The more frequent the testing, and the quicker the turnaround time, the smaller that space is. But it's impossible to eliminate it entirely.

So, if the Marlins continue to play, and continue to spend time in clubhouses together, and continue to have close contact with one another, they increase the probability that the virus will spread further – including to “taxi squad” players they’ve called up to replace those who’ve tested positive. Then the outbreak grows, and the Marlins struggle to field a team. Manfred said Monday that “a team losing a number of players that rendered it completely non-competitive” was the threshold for shutting that team down.

“You're going to be getting cases coming up over the next few days,” Binney says. “And if you keep playing, then the disease is not going to stop.”

What about the Phillies, Miami’s opponent?

That’s the other big question. What are the chances that Marlins, some of whom participated in games while COVID-positive, infected Phillies this past weekend?

“Given the nature of baseball itself, I don't think it's zero risk, but I think it's much lower risk than if they'd been playing football,” Bachynski says. “The playing of the game itself is certainly low-risk compared to most sports.”

Then there is everything surrounding the game itself. The two teams “limited their interactions on the field before games,” according to The Athletic, “but a few players and coaches from each side were seen fraternizing in close contact before the game on Opening Day."

The short answer to the broader question is, “we don’t know.” But we’ll soon have a case study.

“MLB has, perhaps inadvertently, run an experiment on how easily COVID-19 can be transmitted from an MLB team to their opponent during a series,” Binney says. “And we are going to find out the results of that experiment in the next 3-5 days.”

“Not today,” though, he clarifies. Not Monday, nor Tuesday. It’s why the postponement of Monday’s Yankees-Phillies game, but the lack of further postponements, raised eyebrows.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 24: Miguel Rojas #19 of the Miami Marlins steals second base past Scott Kingery #4 of the Philadelphia Phillies in the top of the third inning during Opening Day at Citizens Bank Park on July 24, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Marlins defeated the Phillies 5-2. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
With nearly a dozen Marlins players testing positive for the coronavirus, the question lingers: Did any of them who had it infect anyone on the Philadelphia Phillies? (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Did postponing Monday’s Phillies-Yankees game make sense?

Two reasons given for Monday’s postponement were the possibility that Phillies players had contracted the virus, and the fact that the Yankees would be entering a clubhouse that the infectious Marlins had occupied less than 24 hours earlier.

The latter concern, experts say, is overblown.

“The virus can survive on inert surfaces,” Waldman says, but “usually it's a matter of hours.” Says Binney: “All of the data that we have suggests that person-to-surface-to-person transmission is not nearly as common as direct person-to-person transmission through respiratory droplets.” With a deep cleaning of the locker room – and with the Yankees bringing their own clubhouse staff, to replace the employees who served the Marlins over the weekend – it likely would have been safe for use.

It was reasonable, experts say, to postpone Monday’s game because of the former concern. There’s a chance that a Phillies player could have contracted the virus from a Marlin on Friday, and that he would be infectious on Monday. The incubation period, experts say, is roughly 3-7 days. Monday’s game would have fallen at the very beginning of that range.

It’s more likely, though, that a Phillies player who contracted the virus this weekend would become infectious Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday. So …

Would a Phillies game on, say, Wednesday or Thursday present more risk than a Phillies game Monday?

“Yes,” Binney says. “I think it's fair to think of it that way.”

“Correct,” Bachynski says. “Our current understanding is, 4-5 days after exposure is when you tend to be the most contagious.”

So …

Should MLB let the Phillies keep playing?

If Monday’s game was postponed, it would follow that Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s and Thursday’s should be as well. Why haven’t they been?

“This move almost feels like it's for optics,” Binney says. “To cancel the game [Monday], to make it look like they're doing something, doing one round of testing, and then putting [the team] right back out there the next night ... I very much don't like that.”

Binney continues: “So if you're Major League Baseball, you can only have two rational thoughts right now. One is, we really don't think there was a high chance of transmission on the field, outside, when players were mostly distancing, some of them were wearing masks. We simply don't think there's a lot of risk of the Marlins having transmitted the disease to the Phillies. If that's the case, then play on [Monday].

“The other rational response would be, ‘We're gonna put the Phillies in kind of a probationary quarantine for five days.’ No cases pop up? We feel reasonably confident that the Phillies dodged a bullet, and we're going to let them back onto the field. I think that would be OK. If cases start popping up on the Phillies, of course, you would need to revisit that. But if you're able to go the next five days with no cases? I'd say clear 'em to return.”

How would MLB make up postponed games?

The answer is relatively simple: Don’t.

Prioritize health over competitive integrity. Sure, a semi-balanced 60-game schedule is better than an imbalanced 60-games-for-some, less-for-others schedule. But acknowledging that not every team will play 60 games would give the league freedom to act in the best interest of employee health. Division titles and seeding can be determined by winning percentage, as long as the league stipulates that a team must play some minimum number – 40? 45? – of games to be playoff-eligible. (The playoffs have expanded to 16 teams anyway; if you narrowly miss the cut line, you’re a mediocre team with no excuse beyond your own mediocrity.)

Is this a Marlins problem or a broader problem?

In short, as Binney says: “We don’t know.”

We don’t know where, how, from whom those Marlins players contracted COVID-19. Did one player get coughed on at a grocery store, and subsequently spread the virus to 10 teammates and two coaches? Did all 13 players and coaches go out to a bar together?

Some combination of three things happened:

1. Marlins – one or many – acquired the virus in Florida; and/or

2. MLB’s protocols weren’t strong enough to prevent one or more Marlins from spreading the virus to others; and/or

3. The team didn’t follow those protocols, and as a result one or more Marlins spread the virus to others.

If all 13 acquired the virus in Florida – unlikely, experts say – this is a Marlins problem. If there was intra-team transmission – “far more likely,” Bachynski says – despite protocol adherence, it’s an MLB problem bound to repeat itself.

If there wasn’t complete adherence, it’s some combination of both. Per the Athletic, "some perceptive Phillies had been alarmed all weekend by how the Marlins had appeared to not stagger their arrivals and workouts and how few people in the Marlins dugout were wearing masks."

The league, Binney says, needs to conduct a “swift but thorough epidemiological investigation to figure out what the heck happened.”

Members of the Cincinnati Reds wear masks as they watch the game from the dugout during an exhibition baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. The Reds won 9-7. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Members of the Cincinnati Reds wear masks as they watch the game from the dugout during an exhibition baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. The Reds won 9-7. (AP)

Is the MLB season doomed? Can the league prevent more outbreaks?

The answer depends largely on what that epidemiological investigation uncovers. “So, let's pause, both to stop the transmission, but also to learn what went wrong here,” Bachynski says.

Experts and non-experts alike, however, are increasingly concerned. “I think it's quite likely that there are plenty of other teams that are going to have similar problems,” Waldman says. He’s a knowledgeable Nationals fan, and baseball, he says, has “been great for the two or three days they've been playing.” But he’s pessimistic. “They rolled the dice,” he says, “and now this is what they're getting.”

Adds Bachynski: “I think there's an inherent, significant level of risk just in the way they've set it up. In the absence of a bubble, with widespread community transmission, I think the MLB is a pretty striking case of how an outbreak can happen really fast.”

Should the Marlins’ outbreak worry the NFL, and other non-bubble sports?

“Oh, absolutely,” Bachynski says.

“Oh, yeah,” Baeten says.

“Oh, absolutely,” Binney echoes. “Oh, the speed with which this virus moved through the clubhouse in an MLB team astounded me. It's off the charts in terms of what I expected. It's really bad.

“Because the NFL has more people involved per team, and more close contact. … You would expect that the virus would be more easily able to move through an NFL team than an MLB team. So if MLB can't pull off their plan of playing in home markets while players and staff are living at home in the community with their families, then I think you would have to expect that the NFL couldn't either.

“A lot of people have asked me, does the NFL have an infection control advantage because of only playing once a week? My gut reaction is no. A typical NFL non-gameday, I think, is more dangerous for viral transmission than a typical MLB gameday. Because there are still more people, and perhaps more close contact, depending on how practices are structured, and what everybody is doing in the weight room, and who's in what meeting rooms, and all of that. But I would be worried just from the sheer number of people, and the sheer amount of contact involved, that the NFL wouldn't really have that advantage.”

Says Bachynski: “If even baseball, which is a much more socially-distanced sport, cannot make it past a couple days without having an outbreak among 13 people associated with one team, I do not think that bodes well for the NFL or college football.”

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