CAPITAL REGION -- Rabbi Matthew Cutler is washing his hands more than usual this winter.
Health officials say the exercise can help prevent the spread of flu -- and coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The death toll from the virus continues to rise around the world. In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people in more than a dozen states have died. Eighty cases have been reported in the U.S.
Cutler, who leads Schenectady's Congregation Gates of Heaven, will not risk passing along any illness-causing germs to members of his synagogue.
"As of now, we are not taking anything other than preliminary precautions," Cutler said Wednesday afternoon. "We have Purell (hand sanitizer) in the office and outside the sanctuary and as you come into school.
"For me, personally, before I shake hands or give a hug, I ask -- which I never did before," Cutler said. "It's like, 'Would you accept a hug?' or 'Can I extend my hand to you?' I kind of make light of it ... but I want to acknowledge your presence. I'm leaving it up to the person who's receiving it."
Other houses of worship have expressed concerns over coronavirus.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany on Wednesday issued guidelines to combat the virus.
"At this point, the diocese considers the current status of concern to be Stage 1, meaning there are very few cases in United States and no known cases in local parishes," read a news release issued by the Albany-based church headquarters. "At this stage, in accordance with directives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Diocese has made the following key recommendations to parishes:
* Assure the faithful if they are sick or are experiencing symptoms of serious illness, they are not obliged to attend Sunday Mass and, out of concern for others, ought not to attend.
* Ask anyone with cold or flu symptoms to refrain from the physical sign of peace, refrain from taking Communion from the chalice and receive the host in the hand only.
* Ask everyone attending Mass to sanitize their hands as they come into church using sanitized gel dispensers. These should be made available at entrances.
* Ensure ministers of the Eucharist sanitize their hands before and after distributing Communion. This can be done by washing hands thoroughly (for 20 seconds at least with soap and water) before proceeding to the sanctuary or using good quality hand gel.
* Ensure regular cleaning of surfaces people touch regularly, including door handles.
The Greenwich-based Episcopal Diocese of Albany is currently working on guidelines for its Capital Region churches.
At Congregation Gates of Heaven, Cutler said precautions also have been introduced for post-service, coffee-and-sweets gatherings.
"We have now put out a serving utensil and we're keeping Saran wrap over the cookies and we're asking people to use the utensils, put it on a plate rather than sticking in your hand and taking the cookie," Cutler said.
If people are feeling ill and cannot travel to services, Cutler added, Gates of Heaven live streams its events.
"If anyone is really concerned, they can still be part of the congregation by watching it on their computer," he said.
Other local religious leaders also are taking steps to protect communicants.
Pastor William T. Hodgetts Jr. of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Amsterdam said he recently received a letter from officials in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) in which prevention guidelines were listed.
"We offer Communion, the host, and we offer either the common cup (for wine) or small individual cups," Hodgetts said, adding that grape juice is available as a substitute for people who do not drink alcohol.
An exchange of peace -- often hugs or handshakes -- has changed during the past few years.
"We don't take away the peace," Hodgetts said. "Let's say I go out to shake everybody's hand and you may just hold up your hand and say, 'The peace of the lord be with you,'" Hodgetts said. "That signals me that for some reason, we're not going to shake hands today. We share the peace, but there's like a signal people can give."
After sharing the peace, Hodgetts added, he always washes his hands before distributing Communion.
In Glenville, Pastor Deron Milleville of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church said he will soon send an e-mail to parishioners to ease fears. Milleville said church members will be encouraged to stay home if they are feeling sick.
"We are also going to discontinue handshaking during the sharing of the peace," Milleville said. "Our Communion practices, we're really not looking to change those."
Milleville and his assistant will wash their hands before the congregation before Communion hosts are distributed. In the past, he added, not all have chosen to participate in the traditional church greeting.
"We just get a smile from them and they'll keep their hands in their pockets or across their chests and we respect that," Milleville said. "What I'm most concerned about is ... that we still offer a welcoming, gracious place that Christ would want us to do.
"We're going to get through this," he added, "and we're going to be just as safe and cautious as we can."