Right-wing evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. reopened Liberty University last week despite national outcry about the dangers of bringing students back during a pandemic. Falwell insisted that he had reassurances from local government and medical professionals that it was okay to get thousands of students back into cramped dormitories, cafeterias, and recreation centers.
Now the doctor the university claimed okayed the move, the school’s medical staff, and the mayor of Lynchburg, Virginia are all denying they gave him the thumbs up. And students are starting to get sick.
About half of the 1900 students who returned to campus have fled the dormitories. School officials do not have a count of how many students who live off-campus returned or have stayed in the community.
Falwell, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, is known to rule the school founded by his father with an iron fist. The school has about 15,000 students at its Lynchburg campus and online enrollment of over 100,000.
He previously derided the response to the novel coronavirus as a media plot to harm Trump’s re-election chances. He dismissed concerns about the dangers of bringing students back to campus after Spring Break.
“We think it’s irresponsible for so many universities to just say ‘closed, you can’t come back,’ push the problem off on other communities and sit there in their ivory towers,” Mr. Falwell said during a radio interview with far-right conspiracy theorist and pundit Todd Starnes.
“We’re conservative, we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked.”
“It’s just strange to me how many are overreacting” to the pandemic, he said on Fox & Friends earlier this month. “It makes you wonder if there is a political reason for that. Impeachment didn’t work and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”
Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr., who runs the school’s student health services, told the New York Times approximately a dozen students were sent to the hospital or quarantined.
On the school’s website, Falwell claimed that Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy “thanked us for making that decision” to reopen the school.
But Tweedy called Falwell “reckless.” She and the city manager allege Falwell told them he intended to comply with health recommendations and close the school.
“Dr. Jeffrey Hyman of Northwell Health, New York’s largest health care provider,” was cited on the Liberty University website as one of the medical professionals giving his blessing to the school to reopen. When reached by the New York Times, however, Dr. Hyman said it wasn’t true.
He had a private conversation with the Falwell family, he said through a spokesperson, and told them “that reconvening classes would be a ‘bad idea.’”
Dr. Eppes told the paper that he told Falwell the same thing. “We’ve lost the ability to corral this thing,” he said.