But here’s a key difference: Germany’s response to the pandemic was much more successful — and much more proactive — than the United States’. It enabled the Bundesliga, the country’s top-tier soccer league, to resume in mid-May and handle sporadic coronavirus cases. Baseball, on the other hand, is about to make a similar attempt in a much different environment.
The United States topped 50,000 new daily cases for the first time Wednesday. That was more than a fourth of Germany’s total cases to date. Germany has had around 9,000 coronavirus deaths, and by mid-May, when soccer returned, it had almost completely flattened the curve.
“Germany was able to pull it off, but we are not Germany. Many of the markets that MLB wants to play in do not look like Germany,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “The baseline risk is much higher. So unfortunately, because of our response to covid-19, sports leagues need stricter return plans, and I don’t know that MLB has really wrestled with that yet.”
Both plans hinge on players, coaches, staff and their families being cautious and smart away from team facilities. That’s the reality of not playing inside a bubble, which the NBA will use in Florida to negate travel and limit exposure to the outside world. But MLB and the Bundesliga took near-opposite approaches for regulating off-site behavior.
MLB’s 113-page operations manual dedicated one paragraph to it, writing individuals “must exercise care,” adding that they should avoid restaurants, bars and other crowded areas. MLB left each team to craft and enforce its own policy. Four players, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss a sensitive topic, said this is MLB’s way of avoiding responsibility should an outbreak occur.
“Without guidelines, they can push blame to teams or individuals if cases spike in a clubhouse,” said one player, who opposed a bubble format and acknowledged that the protocol was agreed upon by MLB and the players’ union. “Maybe it was the Uber driver’s fault, the delivery guy, the player was reckless. Who knows?”
“The protocols were a product of a negotiation with the Players Association,” an MLB spokesperson said in a statement to The Washington Post. “If the players want more restrictive protocols when they are not at work, they should speak to their union. We remain willing to make adjustments to the protocols based on the concerns of our players and staff or recommendations from our medical advisors.”
The Bundesliga went the other way, giving detailed instructions for how to best act at home. A 50-page document, dedicated solely to health and safety protocols, often describes these measures as “rules.” Sneeze into a cloth handkerchief in your living room? Wash it at 60 degrees Celsius. Need to dry your hands? Use disposable paper towels if available. Your family member is a player quarantining in your house? Here are 18 ways to keep yourself from contracting the virus.
Included on that list is a note to “not shake out unclean laundry and avoid direct contact between skin and laundry with soiled fabric.” And that is just a sliver of the Bundesliga’s effort to limit the spread of the virus. The Bundesliga held matches in empty stadiums, like baseball plans to, and clubs played a maximum of twice per week, much less frequently than MLB’s tentative schedule of 60 games in 66 days. That helped limit travel and the risks of shuttling between cities.
In turn, the Bundesliga was able to weather players testing positive, including 10 in one of its initial rounds. The six-week return consisted of 36 clubs across the federation’s top two divisions.
“In the U.S., with baseball, the combination of the honor code and the current spike is really dangerous,” said Anne Liu, an infectious-disease specialist at Stanford Health Care. She explained that, given the recent surge of cases, MLB players could use more guidance away from the facilities, not much less than what the Bundesliga provided in May.
This, Liu added, mirrors the contrast between the U.S. and German responses to the pandemic. In America, the virus was quickly politicized and the onus placed on state governments to lead. There is an ongoing debate over whether mask mandates and business lockdowns are violations of civil liberties or necessary public health measures. This week, a handful of states slowed or reversed reopening measures because of recent case spikes.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former scientist, united the country by presenting safety measures — such as mask-wearing and social distancing — in scientific terms. Germany’s 16 states had their own regulations, and as a whole, they never shut down like those in the United States. But they controlled the virus with early testing and contact tracing, a strong public health infrastructure and a trust in government, according to epidemiologists and reports chronicling their success in the past few months.
“The messaging in Germany was very consistent from the beginning and very clear,” Liu said. “As a member of the scientific community, I was kind of jealous when I saw Angela Merkel lay out very methodically and very empathetically to her people the science behind viral transmission and the epidemiology of Sars-CoV-2.
“That made it very clear why they were taking the measures they were taking,” Liu continued. “She appealed to the sense of community and common good to send a very simple and direct appeal to the country. And you know how it’s been here.”
Here is where baseball picks up this weekend, starting with testing. Before training begins, all players, coaches and staff have to take a coronavirus test and self-quarantine while awaiting results. After that, they will be tested every other day. A lab in suburban Salt Lake City will be tasked with fielding thousands of tests and turning around results in “approximately 24 hours,” according to MLB’s operations manual. There is, however, already skepticism within the sport that results will come that quickly.
Before training began in Germany, players, coaches and staff did a week-long quarantine at a hotel. They ate meals separately and, each morning, completed a questionnaire to check for possible symptoms. Testing was frequent during that period, then slowed to around twice a week during the season. The Bundesliga contracted five labs to process results and, according to news accounts, was comfortable doing so because the country wasn’t stretched for resources.
Since the Bundesliga was the first league to return, it provided a template for how to play outside of a bubble. But environmental influences serve as the trickiest element there. Baseball’s plan, while similar, is less detailed in critical areas, according to public health experts, and set to unfold where the virus is still rampant.
“The biggest risk for baseball is location,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research. “The greatest weakness of the plan is sending teams and having teams in states where the governor is unwilling to have strict rules.”
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