Dodgers Stadium COVID testing

People confirm that drivers have a appointment for coronavirus COVID-19 testing, which had resumed at Dodger Stadium with a new drive-through testing site, on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

NEW YORK – Tucked away in Major League Baseball's 113-page manual for playing through the coronavirus pandemic is a subtle assurance from the league and its owners to the public that baseball in 2020 would offset whatever resource drain might result from the business of baseball.

As Section 2.1.5, titled "Voluntary Testing of Household Members and First Responders" read: "MLB will offer free diagnostic/PCR and antibody/serology testing for ... healthcare workers or other first responders in the Clubs' home cities as a public service."

MLB would clean up after itself, in other words, supplying free tests aimed at the workers cheered on by clanging pots and pans, in lieu of standing ovations at Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field. Even if these tests might exclude other "essential workers," and if the manual barely defined how MLB planned to set any of this into motion, it was something.

Or it would have been something, if it had happened. Exactly three months after the manual was shown to the public, and two months after opening day, MLB is only now beginning to return its attention to promises made in June.

Of MLB's 30 teams, including the Yankees and Mets, only one team, the Red Sox, has confirmed a testing plan aimed at frontline workers in its community. The Giants, who say they have made their testing site for players and coaches available to the city of San Francisco, are the next closest, but have not made specific plans to provide testing for frontline workers.

Most teams either didn't respond to the Daily News' inquiries or formally declined comment. Others deferred to MLB, which then deferred back to the individual clubs. Even the Sox, who on Tuesday announced they are helping the Boston Teachers Union conduct weekly tests, are doing so months after the protocol was finalized and regular team testing began.

For months, baseball has devoured about 10,000 tests per week for players and personnel. Those tests have to come from somewhere. The number may not be particularly large compared to the overall number of tests needed across the country, but it adds stress to an already overtaxed system, and grants priority and preference to players and team personnel who could otherwise be perfectly safe at home on their couch.

While MLB has spun up its own testing, the rest of the country is facing massive testing shortages, drive-through lines stretching for miles, and week-long waits for test results. Black and Latino communities across the city and nation continue to bear the brunt of the consequences of America's testing failure. These communities are disproportionately poor and lower-income, making it hard to afford a concierge testing program delivering results in 24 hours. And they make up a disproportionately large share of the "essential worker" class, putting them in the line of the virus for which we still cannot test cheaply or reliably.

The return of professional sports is not responsible for absurdities such as a nurse in Los Angeles waiting a week for COVID-19 test results that Clayton Kershaw receives within 24 hours, or an uninsured, asymptomatic hospital worker in the Dallas metroplex paying as much as $400 for a test Joey Gallo gets free of charge, four times a week. But it's impossible to argue playing baseball has made things any better. This is why the promise to offer free testing in MLB communities was important: If baseball would inevitably add demand and stress to the testing economy, the very least it could do would be footing the cost for others.

So why hasn't it happened?

After multiple requests for clarification, an MLB representative provided a partial explanation: Testing health care workers and first responders was "an optional program that MLB and the MLBPA chose to implement."

Even if that is how the league officially views the situation, the language of MLB's health protocol manual never refers to the public service testing as "optional." (The section does mention voluntary testing, but that refers to people who live in households with players, coaches and select staff – not to public-facing health initiatives.)

"Multiple clubs have activated programs or have plans in development, benefitting various healthcare institutions in Major League markets," the statement continued, while adding that the league provided test kits that were available by request to be distributed for "members of their community" at the club's discretion. So far, the league claims, there have been "thousands of recipients" of MLB's free COVID-19 tests.

It did not clarify who received these tests, or how "members of the community" might access tests flagged for their use.

When the News asked MLB to clarify which teams have or will launch programs in concert with 2.1.5 (ii), the league deferred, saying that "(individual) clubs can comment on their specific efforts."

Again, most teams did not. Seventeen of MLB's 30 teams, including the Yankees, did not respond to The News' repeated inquiries about their administration of the league's community testing initiative.

(The Yankees, in a separate email, said the team was "prepared to accommodate the reintroduction of fans" at Yankee Stadium once MLB and the local government approves.)

A handful of others, including the Mets, formally declined comment or referred the News to MLB. The league indirectly affirmed that other teams would have something set up, eventually.

"Multiple clubs have expressed a desire to launch a program within their community at a time when their season has concluded," an MLB representative wrote, revealing the league's firm grasp on priorities.

The league also declined to answer whether a "concluded" season meant the Sept. 27 regular-season finale, the World Series in October, or a particular team's elimination from postseason contention.

The league also claimed "multiple Clubs are in active discussions with their cities and local governments."

The News contacted municipal government health departments in every American MLB city, yes, even including Erie County, which became temporary hosts for the Blue Jays when the Canadian government ruled that traveling to and from Toronto would "not adequately protect Canadians' health and safety." Only one, the City of Milwaukee Health Department, said it had any coordination with their local MLB team on community testing, but the plan is still being discussed and has yet to launch.

In one case, the Astros and their local health officials appeared to dispute each other's claims, with the team touting their efforts and their county health department denying they had ever received it.

"City of Houston and Harris County health authorities" – two separate and overlapping health authorities in the Houston metro area – "did not need testing help from us at this time on August 21," an Astros representative said explaining why the team had not launched a public-facing plan. However, the Houston Health Department (HHD) called the proposal laid out in MLB's manual "well thought out and workable," and denied requesting any changes to the plan. Meanwhile, a Harris County Health Department (HCPH) rep denied multiple times that the Astros engaged with them on community testing.

When the News asked the Astros to clarify, a club rep said both health departments received their offer to test health workers and "indicated" they "did not require additional testing support and would let us know if they needed help in the future."

For Harris County, the future is now – they're just waiting on their ballclub. "According to HCPH records, we are not aware of any offers from the Astros to test first responders," nor were they familiar with any HHD-Astros conversations.

"However," the rep added, "we are always open to conversation on ways to expand COVID-19 testing throughout the county."

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