It’s still anybody’s guess when live sports will return to the Metro Detroit area due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But when they do, the United Shores Professional Baseball League already has a health and safety plan in place for its fans, staff and players based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as state protocols.
The four-team, Utica-based league is aiming to start its fifth season at Jimmy John’s Field on June 10. Its Opening Day was originally slated for May 8. After that was delayed, it set a target date of May 29 but that was scrapped after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order until May 28.
“We're very confident we can safely hold an event, a game at our ballpark with all the social distancing, all of the bells and whistles that the CDC and others are suggesting,” USPBL owner and CEO Andy Appleby said Wednesday. “We would like to be not only the first league that might come back (in Metro Detroit), but the first league that is allowed to have fans albeit with full social distancing.”
According to Appleby, the plan is to start the season with fans in the stands at a third of the ballpark’s capacity — which is around 1,500. While Jimmy John’s Field is a small ballpark in terms of capacity — it holds a maximum of 4,500 fans — Appleby added it’s still spacious enough for everyone to maintain proper social distance.
Last season, the league sold out a record 62 of its 75 games and averaged 3,400 fans per game in its fourth year of operation.
“It's not perfect to have a third of your fans be able to come to a game, but it's a lot better than not playing the games at all,” said Appleby, whose league has had 36 players sign contracts with major league organizations.
“We are really hopeful we'll be able to play. We think we will but mostly because we're not just opening up business as usual. We're opening up with temperature scanning and all the things that you would think you would need to have any kind of a public event these days.”
The USPBL will be implementing no shortage of health and safety measures for the 2020 season. For starters, all fans will be required to have their temperature taken with an infrared, no-touch forehead thermometer before they enter the ballpark. Anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees will not be allowed in. Fans will be required to wear face masks covering their nose and mouth.
Ticket window lines will be set up for social distancing, though cash-free sales will be encouraged, and digital tickets will allow for contactless entry. Based on pre-sold attendance figures, it’s possible there could be staggered, assigned entry times for fans to prevent crowds.
Grandstand seating will be spaced out and broken into small clusters with unused seats taped off to allow for social distancing. Similarly, lawn seating will be sectioned off in squares 6 feet apart from one another. There will also be limited capacity in group areas, like patio areas in left and right fields, and suites. The same goes for the Kids Zone, but the play structure will be blocked off.
Each bathroom will be staffed with an attendant who will sanitize all door, toilet and urinal handles regularly, and every other toilet stall and urinal will be taped off. There will also be 56 new hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the ballpark that will be permanent.
“I think there will be a lot of common sense for people but we're adding staff, we're adding all kinds of measures. We're going to be extremely vigilant about all of this,” Appleby said. “It's in our best interest, too, because the last thing we need is to have an outbreak. We're going to do everything in our power to avoid that.”
All staff working at Jimmy John’s Field will be required to fill out a health check questionnaire and have their temperature checked upon arrival. All staff will also be required to wear personal protective equipment, including a cloth face mask and gloves.
Similarly, all baseball players and staff will be tested for coronavirus on a weekly basis and will undergo daily health checks. Anyone who produces a positive test will be mandated to quarantine for 14 days.
The USPBL plans to begin the season with reduced player roster — seven position players, three relief pitchers and two starting pitchers on each team — to help with quality control and minimize expenses, with an additional 12 players available to play with any team based on the schedule and availability.
During games, players will not be allowed to chew gum or seeds or spit, and pitchers won’t be permitted to go to their mouth to keep saliva off the ball. Umpires will adhere to the same protocols and will also wear a protective face shield and gloves.
The ballpark will be cleaned and sanitized before and after each baseball game or public event.
While the success of the USPBL is built on the fans and the game-day experience it provides, Appleby said there “might be one or two less bells and whistles.” But, overall, Appleby doesn’t think the product will be impacted much whenever the season is able to get underway.
"I was thinking we were going to have our best year ever and now it won't be. But I would say we're making the best of a bad situation,” Appleby said. “The MLB, I'm sure in a million years they didn't want to play half their games without fans, but suddenly that becomes the best of a bad situation. And in our case, we can't play without fans, but we can make it work with social distancing."