LYNCHBURG, VA. – As Liberty University’s spring vacation ended this month, Jerry Falwell Jr., its president, spoke to the doctor who heads Liberty’s student health service about the raging corona virus.
“We have lost the ability to correct this thing,” said Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr. to Mr. Falwell. But he didn’t push him to close the school. “I’m just not going to be so presumptuous to say,” You should and you shouldn’t, “said Dr. Eppes in an interview.
So Mr. Falwell – a staunch ally of President Trump and an influential voice in the evangelical world ̵
“Liberty will notify the community if it is deemed appropriate and required by law,” Falwell said in an interview on Sunday when he was faced with the numbers. He added that any student now returning to campus will have to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
“I can’t be sure what’s going on with people who aren’t tested but who are advised to isolate themselves,” said Kerry Gateley, health director of the Central Virginia Health District, which covers Lynchburg. “I would assume that if clinicians were worried enough about the possibility of Covid-19 disease to force self-isolation, appropriate screening and testing would be done.”
After the first publication of this article, the university has asked four students who have returned from the New York region and two of their roommates to self-quarantine, but none of them have been referred for testing and none have symptoms. A student returning from a county with a high number of cases had a fever and cough. He was tested and chosen to go home until the results are available, rather than quarantining himself, the university said.
Of the 1,900 students who originally returned to campus last week, Falwell said more than 800 had left. But he said he had “no idea” how many students had returned to off-campus accommodation.
“If I were them, I would be more nervous,” he added, because they live in crowded conditions.
For critical weeks in January and February, the far-right nation rejected the severity of the pandemic. Mr. Falwell mocked it as an “overreaction” driven by liberal desires to harm Mr. Trump.
Although the current crisis appears to be epidemiological in nature, Dr. Eppes, he sees it as a reflection of the “political divide”.
“When Liberty sneezes, there are people who don’t like the fact that Liberty sneezes,” he said in an interview. “Mister. Falwell called me to hear a view that wasn’t exactly his. Great leaders do that.”
The city of Lynchburg is angry.
“We had a firestorm of our own citizens that said,” What’s going on? “Said Treney Tweedy, the mayor.
Some Liberty officials accuse alarmed outsiders of playing politics. Ms. Tweedy called Mr. Falwell “ruthless”. And there are signs of panic inside the school.
“I am not allowed to speak to you because I am an employee here,” wrote a student on campus in an email. But he pleaded, “We need help to go home.”
Under the leadership of the Falwell family, Liberty University has evolved from a humble Baptist college to a evangelical power plant with cash investments and foundations of nearly $ 2 billion, nearly 46,000 students, and a campus that spans Lynchburg and neighboring counties in five decades extends across Virginia. The total number of enrolled students, including online students, exceeds 100,000.
The facility is a welcome and generous presence in this Blue Ridge Mountain region, where the proportion of Lynchburgers living in poverty is twice the national average. Liberty and its Thomas Road Baptist Church donate goods and services, their medical students conduct free health examinations, and their students participate in projects to beautify, maintain, and benefit cities.
The university was founded by Mr. Falwell’s famous father as a bastion of social conservatism, one who was fearlessly combative when she was training what she called “Champions for Christ.” If anything, the younger Mr. Falwell has done more since his father’s death.
Mayor and city administrator here, Bonnie Svrcek, felt relieved two weeks ago when Mr. Falwell assured them that he wanted to fully comply with Virginia’s public health guidelines and close the school to virtually all students, most of whom are for the spring holidays were scattered. Then he changed his mind.
“We think it is irresponsible for so many universities to just say,” Closed, you can’t come back, “to spread the problem to other communities and sit in their ivory towers,” said Falwell said on Wednesday on a radio show by right-wing extremist conspiracy theorist Todd Starnes.
“We are conservative, we are Christians and that is why we are under attack,” he said.
Michael Gillette, former Mayor of Lynchburg and bioethicist, who is now working with his hospitals to ration scarce ventilators, disagrees.
“To argue that criticism of Liberty is based on political prejudice is unfounded and unreasonable,” he said. “Liberty just didn’t take this threat as seriously as others.”
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Lynchburg City officials, and a growing number of Liberty students, parents, and employees have asked Mr. Falwell to reverse the course, but such pleas have only led to a number of often contradictory statements.
“Our embassies changed over the week as the governor’s orders changed. We had to adjust,” said Falwell.
Mr. Falwell initially said that only international students or those who cannot go anywhere else would be left. Then last week, alongside faculty members and staff, he welcomed a much larger group of about 1,900 students to campus. Others returned to off-campus rentals in Lynchburg.
Students who stayed at home had to return last week to clean up their rooms, a requirement that was later relaxed. The faculty members were initially ordered back to campus, although they would teach online. Then some were allowed to work from home. Mr. Falwell also waffled over whether the school would issue reimbursements to students who had not previously returned for the semester announced on Friday that most would receive $ 1,000 credit for next year’s bills.
Mr. Falwell and his administration have worked to stem dissent. After a Liberty student, Calum Best, wrote on his personal Facebook page that students should receive reimbursements, Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb called his cell phone to abuse him. When asked about the call, Mr. Lamb said that he had only objected to a mistake in the mail and that Mr. Best had “turned”.
After Marybeth Davis Baggett, a professor, wrote an open letter asking the university board of trustees to close campus, Mr. Falwell she mocked on Twitter as “the” Baggett “lady.”
Jeff Brittain, a Liberty parent, wrote on Twitter: “I’m as right as you are, buddy. But as a parent of three of your students, I think that’s crazy, irresponsible and seems to be a money grab.” Mr. Falwell replied and called him a “dummy”.
All of this has even made his critics scratch his head.
“It’s frankly hard to figure out what his motives are,” said Mr. Best, the student who wrote the Facebook post, in an interview. “If he had purely political motives, he would be much more conservative than even Trump. Trump at least allows doctors to say their piece. Jerry is not. It kind of shocks me at this point.”
On campus, the government says it complies with Virginia’s public health mandates, but students disregard them. While security guards apparently enforce government advice that requires two meters from other people and gatherings of no more than ten people, students still gather in close proximity to eat, play sports, study, and dormitory toilets to use. Decals are attached to laptops and bumpers on furniture labeled “Closed for Social Distancing”. The study tables are further apart, but shared computer terminals are retained. While some students try to adhere to the social distancing guidelines, they live in group houses, stack up on city buses, and crowd the few shops that are still open in Lynchburg.
It shouldn’t be that way. When the number of reported coronavirus cases in Virginia began to increase, Ms. Tweedy said that Mr. Falwell had personally assured her that the school would not be fully reopened. “We have some students who can’t go anywhere or can’t go anywhere,” she recalled his statement. “The number was about 300 students that day, and even if there were a few, we said,” OK, well, thanks. “
But when the spring break ended in mid-March, all Liberty students were encouraged to return.
“We never talked about numbers and I never told them the dormitories would be closed,” said Falwell on Sunday. “We have to agree that we don’t agree on what was said.”
Mr. Falwell runs Liberty in his own way, and his word is law. Professors are not permanent and can be fired at will. The administration controls the student newspaper.
Mr. Falwell repeats Mr. Trump’s speeches about the corona virus, which he often calls “flu”.
“It’s just strange to me how many overreact to the pandemic,” Falwell said on March 10 at Fox & Friends. “You wonder if there is a political reason for this. The impeachment did not work and the Müller report did not work and Article 25 did not work. Perhaps this is your next attempt to get Trump.”
Lynchburg is particularly poorly prepared to become a hot spot. Hospitals in the region have a total of 1,174 beds, of which only 55 are in the intensive care unit a recent analysis by the Harvard Global Health Institute. These have to serve 217,000 adults, of whom almost 50,000 are 65 years or older. Tests for the corona virus are still in short supply.
Mr. Falwell downplayed the dangers of his decision in interviews with the news media, in which he even suggested that the corona virus is a North Korean bio-weapon. In Fox News, he cheerfully claimed that Covid-19’s cure rate was “99.7 percent for people under 50”, adding, “We spoke to medical professionals, many medical professionals, before we made this decision. “
An archived version of the Liberty website said these physicians included the school’s public health faculty and healthcare providers on campus, and “Dr. Jeffrey Hyman of Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider. “
When Northwell Health was contacted by the New York Times, he denied that Dr. Hyman Liberty gave formal instructions, adding that he was not a specialist in infectious diseases. In a statement, the hospital system said that Dr. Hyman was a personal friend of the Falwell family, who told them in a private conversation “that convening classes would be a” bad idea “.”
Kristin Hussey contributed to the reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.