Over the summer, professional sports in the United States resumed under adjusted conditions amid the ongoing pandemic. This resumption has presented the same operational challenges that many other industries have faced when trying get back to business while COVID-19 rages on. This was particularly evident with Major League Baseball (MLB), which experienced significant issues, despite having extensive resources unavailable to most other enterprises.
Nearly four months later than originally scheduled and after protracted negotiations and planning about how to conduct the season while keeping athletes and staff safe, the league decided on an abbreviated season of 60 games per team (from 162), without fans in attendance. But even with the delayed start on July 23, baseball faced many of the same challenges as other reopening organizations, including limited access to personal protective equipment and delayed testing results.
Some leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) adopted a “bubble” approach to conduct games while limiting virus spread. This involved isolating players and staff, playing all games in centralized facilities, and prohibiting most travel or other potential exposure. MLB did not, instead letting players and staff go about their daily lives and travel relatively freely.
Ultimately, the effects of a non-bubble approach presented the greatest challenge to the season. Early on, two teams suffered major outbreaks, including 21 players and coaches on the Miami Marlins and 13 members of the St. Louis Cardinals organization. This outbreak alone caused the postponement of 30 games, and many called for the season to end almost as soon as it had begun. The season ultimately continued, but other players and staff on the Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants tested positive in subsequent weeks. By mid-September, the league had postponed a total of 43 games across the league due to coronavirus cases.
If COVID-19 can hinder professional baseball’s modified return, how can smaller businesses, educational institutions and other organizations hope to safely return to normal operations? Organizations must meticulously plan, rigorously enforce and continuously reevaluate their strategies throughout this pandemic.
Based on baseball’s return, here are some key lessons for companies to strengthen their emergency response strategies and adjust operations during the pandemic:
Be Ready for Anything
To safely resume operations, it is critical to be prepared for the unexpected. Major League Baseball put a lot of thought and planning into how it could start the season and protect the health and safety of players and staff, going so far as to make a wide range of changes in how the game is traditionally played. The league also issued new guidelines for hand-washing, clubhouse and dugout activities, social distancing, and checking temperatures and symptoms. Officials even dug into the details, issuing safety directives regarding time-honored baseball habits: Players could no longer spit tobacco or sunflower seeds, pitchers could not lick their fingers before throwing a pitch, and celebrating a walk-off home run by mobbing the hitter at home plate was forbidden.
Other organizations can take a cue from MLB by first considering every facet of health and safety and creating workflows and protocols that address all aspects of operations. That likely means additions to the employee operations manual or the emergency response plan. MLB’s COVID-19 protocol manual is more than 100 pages long and yours could be even more extensive.
Before starting the season, MLB considered many different angles and potential incidents to protect the health and safety of players and staff, and to maintain the continuity of the game. Similarly, businesses should carefully develop protocols and processes that can be integrated into emergency plans to protect employees, customers and business partners, while ensuring business continuity. Key steps in this process include:
- Conducting a risk assessment to identify potential emergency threats
- Identifying key personnel who will be involved in incident response
- Identifying stakeholders and local and state agencies that will be involved
- Creating specific plans, procedures and protocols for pandemic response
- Establishing an incident command center for coordination of response and communications
- Developing procedures for coordinating critical event response across multiple locations
- Compiling all forms to be used, including incident reports and forms for insurance purposes
- Seeking input on the preparedness plan from all community stakeholders, including law enforcement, fire, medical/hospital and public health
Preparedness, situational awareness, and an up-to-the-minute common operating picture are essential to keep people safe, whether returning to a worksite or a school campus, and during planned events like sports competitions or unplanned incidents like natural or human-caused disasters.
Like public health and emergency management agencies, many businesses use critical incident/emergency management platforms, which can help leadership and key stakeholders take the proper precautions, and monitor people, activities and incidents. This allows organizations to react faster, make better decisions on the fly, and respond more effectively to lessen the likelihood or severity of a crisis. Emergency management technology also allows organizations to manage logistics, personnel and resources to ensure a comprehensive common operating picture at any given time and manage them more effectively.
Major League Baseball also took a fairly flexible approach to resuming operations. As a result of the growing number of coronavirus cases, the league rescheduled games and was open to, and made, additional changes in protocols as the season progressed. For example, to make up postponed games, the league adjusted team schedules mid-season, creating more doubleheaders. In turn, it also reduced the length of those doubleheader games from nine innings to seven innings to reduce the physical toll on players playing two games back-to-back.
Other organizations must similarly stay flexible enough to turn on a dime when situations change, and be willing to implement new measures swiftly. This is much easier when key decision-makers and emergency response team members are well equipped with the same information and data to better communicate and collaborate, and have the ability to adapt the system as necessary.
An emergency management technology platform can help navigate the complexities of returning to work. These should include workflows tailored to the organization and specific to managing coronavirus cases, including contact tracing and case management functionality. The platform should also be scalable and customizable, and be able to help effectively monitor individuals, facility statuses, PPE supplies, task assignments, and ongoing processes and procedures.
The pandemic has served up many curve balls, and it is unclear how the baseball season—or any other sports seasons, for that matter—will ultimately progress. Without question, operations for baseball and business alike will be different from any we have yet seen. As the country continues to confront COVID-19, focusing on preparedness and flexibility will give all organizations a better chance of success.