Governor urges Falwell to rethink welcoming students

FILE - In this March 11, 2020 file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, back, listens during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the governor asked Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, to reconsider his decision to welcome students back to the Lynchburg campus this week after their spring break. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Four more deaths related to the coronavirus were reported in Virginia on Wednesday as Gov. Ralph Northam called on Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. to reconsider his decision to invite students back to campus.

State epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake said two adults in the Peninsula Health District had died, as well as a man in the Pittsylvania/Danville Health District.

There also was another death reported Wednesday at the Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Henrico County. It was the third death at the rehab center.

Wednesday's deaths bring the statewide toll to 13. There have been seven in the Peninsula Health District, three in Henrico, one in Fairfax, one in Virginia Beach and one in Pittsylvania.

Northam called on Falwell on Wednesday to reconsider his decision to invite students back to campus. On Sunday night Falwell said he had invited students to return to residence halls at the end of spring break.

“I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”

On national media on Wednesday, Falwell said about 750 students are international students.  

“We are told in First Corinthians it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful,” Northam said at a press conference in Richmond. “Proving faithful means providing clear and consistent guidance and it means respecting the duty that Liberty University has to its students, its staff, the Lynchburg community in which it is located and our commonwealth.”

Northam, who said his office does not have the authority to unilaterally close Liberty, also urged Falwell to “look to the actions of the leaders of Virginia's flagship universities for how to set a strong example in this health crisis.”

Virtually all institutions of higher learning in the state have closed their campuses to help limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, though some are allowing a handful of students unable to return home to live in resident halls. The University of Lynchburg and Randolph College on Tuesday said they both have students on campus, 19 and five respectively.

Liberty has taken a different approach. Falwell has invited students interested in spending the remaining six weeks of the spring semester on campus to move back into their dorms to take their courses online. Falwell said on Sunday the university has taken steps to slow the virus’ spread. Gatherings in campus buildings, including a handful of classes still holding in-person meetings, are capped at 10 people in accordance with an order from Northam. Dining halls are only providing take-out service, and campus visits have been suspended.

Mayor Treney Tweedy

Mayor Treney Tweedy speaks during a Lynchburg City Council meeting Tuesday. Tweedy delivered remarks on the return of students to Liberty University. LU began welcoming students back to campus this week, defying a national trend of campus closures.

In response to a flood of calls from citizens concerned about activity at Liberty, Dr. Kerry Gateley, the director of the Central Virginia Health District, ordered an inspection of several university facilities this week. According to a news release issued Tuesday evening by the health district, inspectors did not observe any violations.

“No groups larger than 10 were observed on campus — in the food-service areas or elsewhere — while inspectors reported extensive measures had been taken to remain compliant with the governor’s order,” the health district said in a statement. “While the health department inspectors reported no significant findings at this time, we will continue to monitor campus conditions in the weeks ahead.”

The news came as Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy assailed Falwell's decision to bring students back to the campus, calling it "reckless," in a news release.

On Tuesday, a Liberty spokesperson said around 1,900 students were back on campus.

"Most of the press reports have been false," Falwell told CNN's New Day with Alisyn Camerota on Wednesday morning. "These reports have been overblown. The false reports started with the local newspaper article here that was irresponsibly written."  

The News & Advance published a news article Monday that said Falwell anticipated anywhere from several hundred to 5,000 students returning to campus this week. The News & Advance stands by its reporting.

“I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell said in an interview Sunday night with The News & Advance. 

Later in the day, in an interview with radio personality Todd Starnes, Falwell again accused media of "false reports" and said "we're conservative, we're Christian and therefore we're being attacked." 

Jerry Falwell Jr.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks to former Governor of South Carolina and UN Ambassador under President Donald Trump Nikki Haley during convocation at Liberty University on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019 at the Vines Center.

Liberty University issued a news release Wednesday night to refute "Gov. Northam's false accusations."

"Our students are part of the Lynchburg community! They work jobs, have apartments, make economic contributions and pay taxes. That they should be banned or discouraged from choosing to utilize the shelter and food sources that they paid for in a time of crisis is unthinkable. The only Liberty students who are here are adult students who have concluded that this is the only place they have or it is the safest and best place to be, among what may be limited options for them. So yes, we welcomed them to stay and did not ban or discourage anyone from accessing their local food and shelter," the release said.

"That anyone in the City of Lynchburg would welcome other college students from across the state — and indeed the world — to return "home" to Lynchburg but expect the drawbridge should be pulled up to deny entry to Liberty students illustrates the height of hypocrisy and scapegoating that is going on today."

"We invite Governor Northam to come and see our compliance for himself, rather than making false accusations in press conferences from Richmond. As the Ninth Commandment says, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

On Wednesday, 900 new COVID-19 tests were conducted in the state, a dramatic increase in testing activity that has raised the total number of tests to 5,370 from 4,470 a day earlier, according to The Virginia Department of Health. That increase brought with it 101 new cases of the coronavirus now being reported in Virginia, including one in Roanoke County and a second case in Bedford County. 

As of noon Wednesday, Virginia had logged 391 cases, with 59 hospitalizations, according to the health department's website. The department updates statewide numbers each day at noon, with totals that had been verified as of 5 p.m. the day before. Not counted in the total was a case announced late Wednesday afternoon of a person in their 60s in Washington County who is in isolation at home.

As of Wednesday night millions of Americans had been ordered to self-isolate. Businesses and schools shuttered, and National Guard units have been activated in more than half the states.

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