TORONTO (AP) – The Blue Jays won’t play their home games in Toronto this year because Canada’s government doesn’t think it’s safe for players to travel back and forth from the United States, one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Saturday the federal government had denied the Blue Jays’ request to play at Rogers Centre, confirming what an official familiar with the matter had told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement.
The team had been given clearance by city and provincial governments to play in its home stadium and was awaiting approval from Canadaâ€™s federal government. The other 29 Major League Baseball teams plan to play in their home ballparks, without spectators, when the pandemic-shortened 60-game season begins on July 23.
Mendicino told The AP frequent travel to the U.S., where COVID-19 cases are surging, was the biggest issue.
â€œThere were serious risks if we proceeded with the regular-season proposal of the MLB and the Jays and therefore we concluded it was not in the national interest,â€ Mendicino said. â€œI get that some people will disappointed but this decision canâ€™t be taken as a fan. It is taken on behalf of the health and safety of Canadians.â€
The Blue Jays were informed via a phone call. The team’s alternate sites for home games include its training facility in Dunedin, Florida, which is among the states that are virus hotspots, as well as Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York, which is home to Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate and just across the Niagara River from Canada.
Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said player health is a concern in Florida. He said the team has spent more time examining Buffalo in recent days but said the stadium has infrastructure challenges. A lack of space in the clubhouse makes social distancing difficult, but Shapiro said some players could have their lockers set up in suites. Sahlen Field also needs upgrades to its field lights and its training facilities, he said.
â€œBuffalo is the place we’ve spent the most time on in the last 10 days,â€ Shapiro said. â€œWe can make it what it needs to be for us.â€
The Blue Jays are scheduled to start the season July 24 at Tampa Bay. Their home opener was set for five days later against Washington.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz have pushed for the team to relocate to the city.
â€œLetâ€™s find a way to make them the â€˜Buffalo Blue Jaysâ€™ this year,â€ Poloncarz wrote in a text to The AP.
Shapiro called Canada’s decision disappointing but said he he respects it. He gave health officials credit for mitigating the spread of the virus.
Mendicino said the government is open to considering future restart plans for the postseason should the risk of virus transmission diminish.
â€œWe’ve committed to maintaining an open line of communication with both MLB and the Toronto Blue Jays and we will reassess in due course,â€ he said.
MLB needed an exemption to a requirement that anyone entering Canada for nonessential reasons must self-isolate for 14 days. The U.S.-Canada border remains closed to nonessential travel until at least Aug. 21.
â€œIn Canada youâ€™ve seen us flatten the curve. Youâ€™ve seen that cases have decreased significantly and that is largely attributable to the sacrifices Canadians have made. We can ill afford a step back,â€ Mendicino said.
â€œWe think this is the right call and it is backed by the evidence and advice of our health experts. And fans who still would like to see baseball will still be able to watch the broadcast, just from a different location.â€
The NHL has received an exemption for its restart to the season, but that was a far simpler case because the games are restricted to two hubs – Edmonton and Toronto.
The Blue Jays received an exemption for summer camp, during which the players agreed to isolate in the hotel attached to Rogers Centre and create a quarantine environment. Players are not allowed to leave the stadium or hotel and violators face fines of up to $750,000 Canadian ($551,000 U.S.) and up to six months in jail.
Toronto Mayor John Tory had lobbied the federal government to approve the plan but said Saturday he understands the decision given the situation in the U.S.
Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto and the medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai-University Health Network, said the city and province were wrong to push for games to be played in Canada.
â€œItâ€™s very clear that having people coming from the U.S. repeatedly is not the right thing to do,â€ Morris said. â€œThis should have been by a decision made in Toronto or by the province. Itâ€™s a bit disappointing it had to be made in Ottawa.â€
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.
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