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Blue Jays, barred from playing in Toronto, must find new site for 2020 home games

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TORONTO — The Canadian government Saturday rejected a plan that would have had the Blue Jays play their home games during the 2020 Major League Baseball season in Toronto, citing concerns about cross-border travel and playing in “locations where the risk of [novel coronavirus] transmission remains high.”

Local officials in Toronto and the Ontario government had approved the club’s plan for the abbreviated 60-game season, but Ottawa had yet to give the green light for playing at Rogers Centre.

“Based on the best-available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for MLB regular season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety,” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in a statement. “As a result, Canada will not be issuing a National Interest Exemption for the MLB’s regular season at this time.”

The Blue Jays are scheduled to open the season at the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday. Their home opener is scheduled for July 29 against the World Series champion Washington Nationals.

“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,” Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays’ president and chief executive, 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 have explored the possibility of playing home games at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, home of their top minor league affiliate, or at their spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla. Shapiro said a decision on a home location has not been made.

A sticking point in the discussions between MLB and the federal government was the U.S.-Canada border, which is closed to all “nonessential” travel until at least Aug. 21. MLB sought an exemption from a requirement that anyone who enters Canada self-quarantines for 14 days. The restrictions on travel at the border are widely supported in Canada.

The federal government previously allowed the Blue Jays to move their summer training camp to Toronto from Dunedin and waived the quarantine requirement after the club agreed to be confined to Rogers Centre and an adjacent hotel.

The rules rankled some players. After a TSN reporter said in a tweet that players could face a $550,000 fine or jail time if they violated the rules and were seen outside the stadium or the hotel during the season, Blue Jays infielder Travis Shaw weighed in.

“We were told two weeks … not all summer … all summer is a bit much,” he tweeted.

But the plan for the regular season would require the Blue Jays and their opponents to travel back and forth across the border, including to and from parts of the United States where coronavirus cases are surging. Canada has largely flattened its epidemic curve.

Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, told reporters Friday that travel across the border remained “an issue.”

“We’ve done a good job in terms of keeping our house in order here,” he said. The question, he added, was how to manage the risk of importing cases from elsewhere.

“That success that we’ve achieved, I think, is fragile,” Njoo said. “As we’ve seen, it just takes a few sparks and we can easily backslide into having more cases.”

He said while no professional sports league had submitted a return-to-play plan that was risk-free, the NHL’s model was “closer to what we would be comfortable with.” That setup will have all 24 teams confined to bubbles in “hub cities” of Toronto and Edmonton.

The United States has reported more than three times as many coronavirus cases per capita than Canada and nearly twice as many deaths per capita.

Mendicino said the government could reconsider its decision for the postseason “should the risk of virus transmission diminish.”

“Canada has been able to flatten the curve in large part because of the sacrifices Canadians have made,” he said. “We understand professional sports are important to the economy and to Canadians. At the same time, our government will continue to take decisions at the border on the basis of the advice of our health experts in order to protect the health and safety of all Canadians.”

Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

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