Liberty University violated state rules aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus late last month when it hosted a largely mask-free snowball fight, local health officials wrote in a letter to the university’s leadership last week.
But the officials stopped short of sanctioning the religious institution for allowing hundreds of unmasked students to gather at the center of campus on the afternoon of Jan. 31.
Instead, Lynchburg City Health Department officials warned Acting President Jerry Prevo in a notice of violation letter that Liberty could face criminal charges and civil action if the school does not crackdown on the rule breaking.
“Please be advised if the violations alleged are not remedied or violations continue, LCHD will seek enforcement action pursuant to Executive Order 72, including Class 1 criminal misdemeanor and civil injunctive relief,” James Bowles, an environmental health manager, wrote in the Feb. 9 letter, which was obtained by The News & Advance.
Prevo, who personally organized the snowball fight on Twitter, apologized for the event earlier this month after facing a torrent of online criticism. A Liberty spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
In the Feb. 2 statement, Prevo called the snowball fight a mistake and pledged to rededicate the university’s commitment to enforcing pandemic-related precautions on campus.
“I messed up,” Prevo, a 76-year-old former Alaskan pastor, said at the time. “We did not think through or communicate the need to wear facial coverings and remain 6 feet apart in compliance with Virginia Governor’s Executive Orders for the suppression of the spread of COVID-19 or even our own COVID-19 Operations Plan. And the size of the group was not in compliance either.”
Local health officials were flooded with complaints about the mass gathering after Liberty shared images of the event on social media, including photos of an unmasked Prevo standing in a crowd of students. According to the notice of violation letter sent to Prevo, the health department received 119 formal complaints about Liberty in the days after the snowball fight.
The health department letter directly references a since-deleted Twitter post sent by Prevo encouraging students to attend the gathering outside the Montview Student Union. It also cites a 47-second video of the snowball fight published by the Liberty Champion, the student newspaper, showing more than 100 students clustered closely together at the event.
“Few, if any, of the participants appear to be wearing face coverings and the video shows repeated instances of participants failing to maintain six feet of social distancing guidelines required by EO 72 in outdoor settings,” Bowles, the local health official, wrote in the letter, referring to a state order prohibiting social gatherings of more than 10 people.
There is no evidence the snowball fight directly contributed to the spread of the coronavirus on campus. According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, 62 students and 30 employees have tested positive for the virus since the event. About 15,000 students attend Liberty.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Bowles said Liberty officials had not yet formally responded to the notice of violation letter. But he said he was encouraged by Prevo’s public promise to enforce COVID-19 rules.
“I felt like their reaction when they publicly apologized essentially for the incident and made a public commitment to doing better was actually a pretty good reaction,” he said.
The notice of violation letter sent to Liberty, Bowles said, marked the first time the university has been cited for failing to comply with public health measures during the pandemic.
The snowball fight, however, is not the only time Liberty has been accused of flouting COVID-19 rules. At least 35 formal complaints unrelated to the snowball fight were filed against the university between mid-June and late January, according to health department records.
The complaints include allegations of a lack of mask wearing and social distancing in campus buildings and at university-sponsored events. The records show that local health officials spoke to Liberty employees on at least five separate dates to notify them of the complaints and to remind them of the state rules.
In its notice of violation letter, the health department recommended the university take three steps to satisfy state rules: limit social gatherings to 10 people, ensure individuals maintain 6 feet of social distancing and require students and staffers to wear face coverings.