Getting back to work is hard. Ask baseball.

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Getting back to work is hard. Ask baseball.

For employers trying to figure out the safest way to get their staffs back into the workplace, Major League Baseball offers a cautionary tale.

On Monday, the U.S. baseball league was forced to pull the plug on two games after at least 14 players, coaches and staff on the Miami Marlins tested positive for Covid-19. The Marlins' home opener in south Florida, a coronavirus hotspot in recent weeks, was canceled, while a matchup between the Phillies and New York Yankees in Philadelphia, where the Marlins had played on Sunday, was postponed. The development could be an ominous one for America's pastime. A significant outbreak on one club could call into question the wisdom of proceeding with a truncated season days after it got underway. The league said it is doing more testing.

Baseball has been aggressively testing its players and coaches to try to stage a 60-game season—102 games fewer than normal—featuring less travel, rule tweaks and expanded playoffs. The league had struggled to get going this year, with delayed test results holding up preparations for the season's start. Also, some marquee talent elected to sit out, citing fear of infecting family members or of falling ill themselves. Still, the return of baseball was welcomed as a sign that the country could start edging back toward life as it was lived before Covid-19 changed everything this spring.

Marlins Park during an intrasquad game in Miami on July 17.

Photographer: Mark Brown/Getty Images



Now, the league's struggles could be a sign of problems to come for other big employers eager to get back to some kind of normal. Some companies have had second thoughts about testing their own workers, partly out of concern over the expense. However, baseball's outbreak is a warning that they might at minimum have no choice but to test.

The failure to catch a Covid-19 outbreak in an office or on a factory floor would be costly and damaging. Other U.S. sports leagues, including the National Basketball Association, have taken a more aggressive approach to quarantining players, placing them in "bubbles" isolated from the rest of the world. But few business would be able to take such extreme measures to protect their workforces. And few workforces are as healthy as a group as professional athletes.

Some employers have decided they aren't willing to take the chance. Google doesn't plan to bring its workers back to the office before July 2021. The search giant's decision could set a new standard of caution for big companies that are weighing whether to try to bring workers back en masse.

Google's move is a recognition that the costs of going back to the office too early could be high. Baseball's struggle is a demonstration of how quickly something could go very wrong, even under tightly controlled circumstances.—Tim Annett

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