Jerry Falwell Jr. is keeping Liberty University's campus open while publicly minimising the threat of coronavirus

REUTERS/Jonathan DrakeFILE PHOTO: Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., attends the school’s commencement ceremonies in Lynchburg, Virginia, U.S., May 11, 2019.
  • Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a close ally of President Donald Trump, is keeping campus open as the school’s 5,000 students return from spring break.
  • While classes are moving to online instruction, Falwell Jr. is still encouraging students to return to campus and is ordering faculty “without a valid health exemption” to report to work.
  • Falwell Jr. has publicly downplayed the threat of coronavirus in recent weeks, despite criticism from concerned parents.
  • A staunch conservative and Trump supporter, he has also downplayed the severity of the crisis and argued that the media coverage of the virus is a plot to undermine Trump’s presidency.
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Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a close ally of President Donald Trump, is keeping campus open as students return from spring break, despite hundreds of colleges across America moving online and sending students home for the rest of the semester.

This week, approximately 5,000 Liberty students return to campus in Lynchburg, Virginia. While classes are moving to online instruction, Falwell Jr. is still encouraging students to come back to campus. He’s also ordering faculty “without a valid health exemption” to report to work on campus and continue to hold in-person office hours, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on Tuesday.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, there are currently at least 290 cases of COVID-19 in Virginia, including 45 people who have been hospitalized and six who have died. There are also two confirmed cases in Amherst and Bedford counties, which border the city of Lynchburg.

As cases increase, Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered Virginia public K-12 schools to close for the remainder of the academic year, and has ordered many non-essential businesses to close.

Dozens of other higher educational institutions in Virginia, including the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia Tech University, and Washington & Lee University are suspending in-person classes and moving to online instruction for the next several weeks or the rest of the semester.

Falwell has publicly downplayed the threat of coronavirus in recent weeks. While Liberty is keeping dorms, academic buildings, and libraries open, Falwell Jr. told the Times-Dispatch that the school is capping on-campus gatherings at 10 people and has identified an old hotel the university plans to use to quarantine sick students if necessary.

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

Despite Falwell’s claim, young people are still at risk of contracting the disease or spreading it to others. On Friday, the World Health Organisation’s director-general warned that young, otherwise healthy people can become seriously ill, saying: “Today I have a message for young people: You are not invincible. This virus could put you in the hospital for weeks or even kill you.”

And keeping Liberty open and concentrating so many people in one space runs contrary to guidance from public health experts, who argue that aggressive social distancing and people staying at home and away from others is the most effective way to stop the virus’ spread.

Falwell Jr. has combatively engaged online with critics of his decision to keep the campus open. On March 15, he called Jeff Britain, a parent of three Liberty students who expressed concern over students spreading the virus to older relatives a “dummy” on Twitter for questioning Falwell’s rejection of social distancing guidelines.

Falwell Jr., a staunch conservative and Trump supporter, has also downplayed the severity of the crisis and even argued that the media coverage of the virus is a ploy to undermine Trump’s presidency.

In a March 15 appearance on “Fox & Friends,” Falwell falsely suggested that concern about the COVID-19 is overblown, and that the media is overhyping it specifically to hurt Trump. He also claimed without evidence that the virus is a bioweapon concocted by North Korea and China to target Trump.

“It’s just strange to me how so many are overreacting. The H1N1 virus in 2009 killed 17,000 people, it was the flu also I think, and there was not the same level of hype. You just didn’t see it on the news 24/7 and it makes you wonder if there’s a political reason for that,” Falwell said.

Not only has the virus hit other countries incredibly hard, but public health experts say that COVID-19 spreads faster and is far deadlier than the flu, especially for older Americans and those with underlying health conditions. And unlike the seasonal flu, there is no vaccine for COVID-19.

In his Fox News appearance, Falwell Jr. then suggested that the virus is a North Korean-linked bioweapon, saying, “I had the owner of a restaurant ask me, ‘Remember when the North Korean leader promised a Christmas present for America back in December, could it be that they got together with China and this is that present?’ I don’t know, but this is something strange going on.”

There is no evidence to support Falwell Jr.’s claim that the virus is a bioweapon designed to hurt Trump, or that North Korea played any role in the original outbreak of the virus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China.

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