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 Canada’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.
“There 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,” Mendicino said. “I get that some people will disappointed but this decision can’t be taken as a fan. It is taken on behalf of the health and safety of Canadians.”
The Blue Jays were informed via a phone call. The team's alternate site for home games is its training facility in Dunedin, Florida, which is among the states that are virus hotspots. Players have said they preferred to play in Toronto, and the team said it is in the process of finalizing a home location for the season.
“From the onset of discussions with league and government officials, the safety of the broader community — our fans — and the team remained the priority of everyone involved, and with that, the club completely respects the federal government’s decision,” Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said in a statement.
“Though our team will not be playing home games at Rogers Centre this summer, our players will take the field for the 2020 season with the same pride and passion representative of an entire nation. We cannot wait until the day comes that we can play in front of our fans again on Canadian soil.”
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.
Mendicino said the government is open to considering future restart plans for the postseason should the risk of virus transmission diminish.
“We've committed to maintaining an open line of communication with both MLB and the Toronto Blue Jays and we will reassess in due course,” 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.
“In Canada you’ve seen us flatten the curve. You’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,” Mendicino said.
“We 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.”
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.
“It’s very clear that having people coming from the U.S. repeatedly is not the right thing to do,” Morris said. “This should have been by a decision made in Toronto or by the province. It’s a bit disappointing it had to be made in Ottawa.”