Feds shut down Raptors season in Toronto over U.S. travel, quarantine concerns

The PHAC memo, written in November 2020, made clear the biggest sticking point for health officials was the plans for Raptors players to travel and then return to their own private homes

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OTTAWA – The federal government called foul on the NBA’s COVID-19 plans over fears Toronto Raptors’ players would spread the virus when they returned from U.S. road trips, according to a memo on the decision obtained by National Post.


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Professional sports leagues had most of their 2020 seasons delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic. The NBA and the NHL shut down in March 2020 and finished the remainder of that season in rigid bubbles.

But for the 2020/2021 season both leagues hoped to resume somewhat regular play. The NHL moved all of the Canadian teams into the same division to virtually eliminate cross-border travel and had other testing and quarantine measures that are still in place.

The Raptors are Canada’s only NBA team leaving them no choice but to travel to the U.S, which would have been difficult to manage under Canada’s then quarantine rules, which required all returning travellers to isolate for 14 days.

The Raptors wanted a national interest exemption from those quarantine rules, which the government issued in rare cases to allow people to skip the mandatory quarantine.


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In a memo to Patty Hajdu, then minister of health, written just before the decision in November 2020, the Public Health Agency laid out its issues with the Raptors plan, which included extensive travel across the border.

“The proposal would allow repeated travel across the Canada/United States border to facilitate game play,” said the memo.

The note emphasized the Raptors would have to travel to the U.S. ten to 12 times over the course of the season and 29 teams from the U.S. would have to travel to Canada.

It pointed out the government had granted national interest exemptions for the NHL and Major League Baseball, but those teams were not contemplating as much cross-border travel.

The memo also made clear the biggest sticking point for public health officials was the plans for Raptors players to travel and then return to their own private homes.


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“While the Toronto Raptors would play numerous games in the United Stated all players would be required to reside within private residences in Toronto or surrounding areas,” said the memo. “They would be able to see and have regular contact with their families who would have interaction with the community. This presents concerns about restricting community exposure.”

The agency also flagged that Ontario’s health officials were against giving the Raptors an exemption.

Toronto Raptors play the New Orleans Pelicans at Amalie Arena, their adopted home venue in Tampa, Florida, on Dec 23, 2020.
Toronto Raptors play the New Orleans Pelicans at Amalie Arena, their adopted home venue in Tampa, Florida, on Dec 23, 2020. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With Toronto out as a possibility, the Raptors instead moved their home games to an arena in Tampa, Florida for that season, before returning to their home arena this past fall.

When the move to Tampa was announced Raptors President Masai Ujiri said the government had reasonable conversation with the team, but ultimately couldn’t find a solution.


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“We found strong support for the protocols we put forward. Ultimately, the current public health situation facing Canadians, combined with the urgent need to determine where we will play, means that we will begin our 2020-21 season in Tampa,” he said in a statement.

The PHAC memo, written in November 2020, highlighted that America was struggling in the pandemic and that all that travelling was a public health concern.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States remains concerning and is anticipated to get worse,” it said. “The NBA’s decision to have teams travel to and from the United States poses a public health risk to Canadians.”

The note mentioned that it would be extremely difficult to ensure visiting teams coming into Toronto were observing quarantines, but even if that could be done, teams would still be visiting the U.S. where rules were not as strict.


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“The Government of Canada cannot enforce strict quarantine behaviour or behaviours of these teams while they are in the United States.”

The Toronto Blue Jays played their home games in Buffalo, New York until well into 2021. In an email about the Raptors situation drafted at the same time as the memo, Cindy Evans, a vice-president at the Public Health Agency said they had to have a consistent policy.

“Current status of the outbreak in Canada is not trending well and is worse than when we took the decision on baseball,” she said. “A positive decision now could undermine the seriousness of our other public health advice.”

All major sports leagues dealt with COVID-19 cases during the 2021 season and have seen a rise in new cases during the latest Omicron wave.

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