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What lessons can other sports learn from MLB’s COVID-19 outbreak? ‘You have to look at every point of contact to try to have control.’

Major League Baseball’s fumbling attempt to salvage its season amid a pandemic — the difficulty of which settled in almost as soon as the season got underway — is something other sports leagues and businesses around the country are almost certainly keeping a close and wary eye on.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world in March, the NBA and NHL had already completed most of their seasons, while the NFL season was months away. It left baseball with an entire season to begin and complete without the luxury of excluding some teams like basketball and hockey.

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Rather than attempt to secure its players and staff in a controlled environment like the so-called “bubbles” the NBA, WNBA and Major League Soccer created in Florida, MLB became the first sport to try to stage a season safely in home stadiums in a country where the virus is raging.

And the early returns have not inspired confidence.

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On opening night, one of the sport’s biggest stars on the defending World Series champions was held out after testing positive for the virus, and since then both Juan Soto and the Washington Nationals have been confused by the protocols for him to get back on the field.

At least 21 members of the Miami Marlins organization, including 18 players, reportedly have tested positive for the virus. Over the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals became the second team to report an outbreak, and it was revealed Monday that seven players and six staff members tested positive.

By the season’s second weekend, six of 30 teams (20%) had games postponed because of concerns over the virus, and at least three more players — New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain and Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz — have opted out of playing the rest of the season.

“Baseball really needs to tighten this up significantly to be able to continue to move forward,” said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, the medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That just has to happen; otherwise, it’s not feasible. The hard part is whatever happens here is going to determine how the NFL is going to go and how we’re going to do other sports. So they have a responsibility.”

Other team sports likely will have to confront similar problems soon. NFL teams have opened training camps even while red flags continue to go off. The NBA has been applauded for its success in keeping the virus out of its Orlando bubble so far, but how the league plans to proceed for the 2020-21 season, scheduled to begin in December, remains a much blurrier picture. College campuses have routinely been hot spots for outbreaks, which would leave college football players to navigate that environment before getting on the field.

“Here in Illinois, I think these are part of the reasons why the governor made the high school restrictions now for the high-risk sports for the fall,” Bleasdale said. “We’re seeing big teams with lots of resources are having challenges, so of course on a small scale it’s going to be an issue.

“It’s an issue for everything around this. If you don’t have more broad control, things are going to get out of hand.”

Still, there are a few lessons other leagues can heed from MLB’s attempt to salvage its season.

Starting last week, each team had to implement a compliance officer to travel with the team and oversee health protocols after the Marlins played a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 26 despite knowing four players had tested positive. Taking decisions out of the hands of players and coaches, who are inclined to want to keep playing, is a positive development.

While baseball’s manual featured pages of recommendations about what to do at the park, focusing on limiting spitting and showering, Bleasdale said she would like to see plans that involve more stringent guidelines for players off the field and the people they’re interacting with.

“When they’re out in play or they’re practicing, we’ve seen a lot of measures, but what we’ve seen across both businesses and clusters of cases, you have to look at 24/7,” she said. “You have to look at every point of contact to try to have control.”

Despite the season starting off on such unstable ground, MLB appears set to continue to push forward. Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN on Saturday that baseball will play on, before he attempted to shift the blame onto players.

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And while players certainly should avoid hotel bars and other outings that involve increased risk, MLB has to tighten up its protocols to continue. Baseball believed it could identify and respond rapidly to a positive test to avoid it spreading throughout the clubhouse, a plan exposed quickly by the Marlins outbreak.

Throughout the first two weeks, teams have been seen crowding in the dugout, high-fiving each other after big plays and celebrating walk-off home runs together. Tighter regulations could be coming soon.

Even with the most stringent safety measures and diligent players, however, there are no guarantees the virus won’t be contracted in other ways while people are living in their communities or traveling from city to city, many of which are in states with surging case numbers. While the country fails to contain the virus, playing sports outside of a controlled environment might be a losing battle destined to fail no matter the precautions.

“I think Major League Baseball realizes this is a living, breathing thing that we have to keep evolving and changing how we do things to find the best protocols,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer told reporters over the weekend. “We don’t know. People gave their best efforts to figure out the right way to play this season without a bubble. They did a very thorough job, but there are some holes in that net, there’s no question, and travel is a challenge.

“Everyone says the Marlins was a wake-up call, and it was. But we’ve had two wake-up calls now with this Cardinals situation. We can’t continue to have these outbreaks.”

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