Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is criticizing Liberty University's decision to reopen its Lynchburg campus could put at risk public health in a state where the coronavirus is spreading through communities.
"We have heard too many mixed messages around the country about COVID-19, and this is yet another example," Northam said at a news conference Wednesday.
"Our message is clear: Stay home unless you have to leave for essential reasons. We appreciate our colleges and universities making accommodations for students with special cases. But that is very different from inviting students to leave their homes and come back to campus."
"All Virginia colleges and universities have a responsibility to comply with public health directions and protect the safety of their students, faculty, and larger communities. Liberty University is no exception," she said in an email.
Northam has signed several executive orders aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus in Virginia, including one that bans gatherings of more than 10 people around the state. Anyone caught violating that order is subject to a class one misdemeanor.
In a statement posted to Liberty's website on Monday, Falwell said the school's campus would reopen for students who choose to return. Classes will be held online, but Falwell walked through campus and met with students as they returned, the statement said.
"Our thinking was, ‘Let's get them back as soon as we can — the ones who want to come back,'" Falwell said. "They were talking about being glad to be back. I was joking about how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and told all of them to enjoy it."
The Virginia Department of Health dispatched an inspector for a surprise inspection, and Liberty said the inspector found the school in compliance with the 10-person limits.
In an appearance on CNN Wednesday, Falwell said the school had not reopened, in spite of the statement that remained on the school's website.
"First of all, most of the press reports have been false. Liberty did not reopen. Liberty has between 1,000 and 2,000 students on a campus built for 15,500 and almost a thousand of those are international students who have nowhere else to go," Falwell said. "These reports have been overblown. The false reports started with a local newspaper article here that was just irresponsibly written."
Falwell said some medical school laboratory classes were continuing with fewer than 10 students.
Local officials have criticized Falwell's decision to allow students back on campus, too. Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a statement Tuesday that the city had asked Falwell to shutter the campus.
"I was very surprised and disappointed to later learn of President Falwell’s most recent decision to allow students back on campus," Tweedy said. "I believe it was a reckless decision to bring students back on campus at this time."
Dozens of other universities and colleges around Virginia have closed in the face of the coronavirus threat. Virginia is not at the epicenter of the virus yet, but the commonwealth has confirmed 290 cases, 45 of whom have been hospitalized, and 10 have died.
As of Wednesday morning, no cases had been confirmed in Lynchburg itself, though cases had been identified in neighboring Bedford and Amherst counties, according to the Virginia Electronic Disease Surveillance System.
This story was updated at 3:45 p.m.