TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays were given approval from the Canadian government on Friday for an exemption on border restrictions that would allow them to play in Canada later this month.
The Blue Jays had asked the federal government to allow them to play at Rogers Centre starting July 30 and wanted a response by Friday.
“After nearly two years away, the Toronto Blue Jays are finally coming home to Canada beginning July 30,” the team said in a statement.
“The club was granted a National Interest Exemption by the federal government that allows Major League Baseball games to be played at Rogers Centre, with robust health and safety protocols in place.”
The Blue Jays played home games during the shortened 2020 season at Sahlen Field in Buffalo and started this season in Dunedin, Florida, before moving back to Buffalo. The Canadian government didn’t allow the team to play in Toronto because of the risk of spreading COVID-19, citing frequent travel required in the U.S. during a baseball season.
“No place like home,” the Blue Jays tweeted.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the decision was made in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada, with the approval of provincial and municipal public health officials.
Mendicino said the plan includes significant limitations on unvaccinated individuals, "who will have to undergo a modified quarantine, not be permitted to go anywhere but the hotel and stadium and have no interaction with the general public.”
He said there will also be a designated compliance officer for each team.
“Anyone who breaches these stringent conditions will have their exemptions revoked and may also be subject to fines or prosecution under the Quarantine Act,” he said.
The U.S.-Canada border remains closed to nonessential travel, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week those restrictions could end in mid-August.
Major League Baseball requires an exemption for unvaccinated players and team staff to play games in Canada. As of this month, fully vaccinated players who have valid work permits are no longer required to complete a 14-day quarantine upon entry into Canada, but some teams have players who are not vaccinated. A quarantine exemption and protocols around that need to be approved.
Talks between the Blue Jays and federal government accelerated over the last day.
The team described Friday as a breaking point, noting the long homestand that starts July 30 represents over 25% of the remaining games at a crucial juncture competitively. The Blue Jays entered Friday tied for third in the AL East.
They require lead time in order to move what they need from Buffalo and to prepare for Toronto operations, including ticket sales, although the team has already begun preparations at Rogers Centre, according to two team officials who spoke the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Toronto last played at 49,000-capacity Rogers Centre on Sept. 29, 2019, an 8-3 win over Tampa Bay.
Blue Jays ace Hyun-Jin Ryu signed with the team before the 2020 season and has yet to pitch a game in Toronto.
The club noted in a news release this week that MLB has high vaccination rates, with more than 85% of players and team staff fully vaccinated. The club said vaccinated players and staff on the home and visiting teams will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, with no quarantine requirement, and that fully vaccinated individuals will undergo weekly testing.
The Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, who moved to Trenton, N.J. to accommodate the Jays, their parent club, said they play to return to Sahlen Field before the end of this season.
“The Buffalo Bisons are extremely happy for the Blue Jays organization, the City of Toronto and their great fans with the news that they’ll soon be able to reunite at the Rogers Centre in Canada," the Herd said in a statement. "We’re proud to have been able to support our Major League partner over the last two years and are especially thankfully for how our amazing fans in Buffalo and throughout Western New York have welcomed the Blue Jays and cheered for them as their hometown team this summer.
"This news is also a tremendous step in our region’s return from the pandemic and we very much look forward to the ability to reconnect soon with our great fans from Southern Ontario. We’re excited to be able to support the Blue Jays for their last six games at Sahlen Field and for the return of Bisons baseball to Buffalo later this season.”"