With the holiday season approaching, Washington State University encourages all members of its communities to follow state guidance aimed at protecting public health.

The state of Washington recently released new guidance on celebrating the holidays during the ongoing pandemic.

The guide includes tips on having conversations with family and friends about the risks associated with COVID-19 as well as a safety checklist for gatherings.

Limiting gatherings to one’s own household this holiday season is the ideal, said Ben Stone, an environmental health specialist with Whitman County Public Health.

“The impact that an increase in viral spread can have on a community is much more widespread than most realize,” Stone said. “Many people may think it is just a few days home sick from work but those people that are home are first responders, teachers, students, restaurant workers, transit drivers, and so many others that contribute to our communities. It’s important that we all take steps to protect ourselves and each other this winter.”

It’s also required in the state of Washington from now until Dec. 14 under new restrictions put in place due to the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases.

People from different households are prohibited from gathering indoor unless they quarantine for 14 days prior to a social gathering or quarantine for seven days prior and receive a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of the gathering. Outdoor gatherings are limited to five people that don’t live under the same roof.

Central to this year’s holiday season is having open conversations with family and friends about how you’re feeling about coming together. State health experts advise people to be clear and honest about their plans and expectations, and not to feel pressured if someone expresses disappointment or anger. Hosts should understand that those not attending dinners or get-togethers likely want life to go back to the way it was last year, but that the current pandemic poses too great a risk.

Families can look at the restrictions as an opportunity to find new ways to connect, such as virtual get together or game nights using video conferencing platforms. It’s also an opportunity to brush up on penmanship by writing letters to loved ones. These can allow families across the country to come together virtually under the same roof without leaving their homes.

As holiday gatherings approach, those planning on attending in-person gatherings should quarantine ahead of time in accordance with local and state guidance.

Additionally, guests and hosts should also be monitoring their health leading up to specific events for any changes.

“You cannot tell by symptoms alone whether you have COVID-19 or a seasonal illness like the flu,” Stone said. “Testing is the only way to make certain whether or not you have COVID-19.”

WSU Pullman employees have access to free asymptomatic testing through Dec. 17 via the Washington National Guard. WSU Pullman students can also get tested at the Washington National Guard test site or at Cougar Health Services. Students are asked not to return to Pullman until the start of the spring semester if they leave for the holidays.

Faculty and staff are expected to follow state guidance on non-essential travel. In-person office parties are also not permitted per the guidance.

Employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should not report to a WSU work location and are advised to call their healthcare provider. A flow chart developed by Environmental Health and Safety outlines the steps employees should take upon noticing symptoms.

More information on COVID-19 testing and assessment can be found on the Whitman County Public Health website.

As much physical distancing as possible is encouraged during holiday gatherings. Ideally, these events would be outside, but that may not be possible in the midst of winter. Masks should be worn at all times during these gatherings and food should be spread out over a larger-than-normal area to reduce the need for people to get close or share serving utensils.

Immunocompromised individuals, or those who work in high-risk areas such as long-term care facilities, should strongly consider keeping away from gatherings outside of their own household this year, Stone said.

”It’s completely understandable to want to see your friends and family in-person after so many months away,” Stone said. “However, risk associated with COVID-19 cannot be completely removed, and families must have up-front conversations and make sensible decisions to stay away if that risk is too great for themselves or their loved ones.”

Stone continued, “By taking these steps, you’re helping your community be healthy in the days, weeks and months ahead.”