Officials in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Tuesday they were fielding complaints about the hundreds of students who have returned from spring break to Liberty University, where President Jerry Falwell Jr. welcomed them back amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
"In my statement I said it was reckless. And so I believe it was a reckless decision to just decide to open it up to whoever," Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy told The Associated Press.
As many colleges nationwide began announcing campus closures this month, Liberty, which is among the nation's largest and most prominent evangelical institutions, initially planned to continue on-campus instruction. But last week, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam restricted gatherings of more than 100, Liberty said it would transition most classes online effective Monday.
Residential students were told they were "welcome" to return to campus, according to an email to students. The move was at odds with many other institutions of higher education that urged students to stay home as the outbreak upended daily life around the globe.
"The students did go on spring break, they were traveling across state boundaries and throughout the country and internationally and so it was the concern of many residents throughout our city," Tweedy said.
Liberty said in a statement Monday that it was working hard to comply with all state restrictions while providing safe and reliable accommodations for students, including extra sanitizing measures and changes to on-campus dining.
"We think Liberty's practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if coronavirus is still an issue," Falwell said in a statement.
A statement from the local health department said an unannounced campus inspection found no violations.
Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb said about 1,100 students were back on campus by Tuesday morning. He said a former hotel the university owns is available as a quarantine site if needed and tents have been set up "preventatively" for any student on campus who might feel ill.
Falwell, one of President Donald Trump's earliest and most ardent high-profile supporters, has generally characterized virus concerns as overblown. He has praised Trump's virus response, compared the virus to the flu and has accused the news media of stoking fear.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks.
For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
The vast majority of people recover.