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Information signs are displayed at a retail store in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced plans that Illinois’ mask mandate to be lifted Feb. 28 with exceptions for schools, hospitals, nursing homes.

Nam Y. Huh

The Rundown: Masks mandates end as new omicron variant spreads

Good afternoon! It’s Monday, and happy Presidents Day, that magical time of the year when a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln tries selling you a mattress on sale — a true testament to a president’s legacy. Here’s what you need to know today.

1. As Illinois nears lifting its mask mandate, scientists debate the impact of a new omicron variant

The variant, known as BA.2, is believed to spread 30% more easily than the original strain of omicron, becoming more dominant in South Africa and causing a second omicron wave in Denmark.

Researchers estimate BA.2 accounts for 3.9% of new infections in the U.S., and that percentage is growing.

“If it doubles again to 8%, that means we’re into the exponential growth phase and we may be staring at another wave of COVID-19 coming in the U.S.,” says Samuel Scarpino, the manager director of pathogen surveillance at The Rockefeller Foundation.

Some experts, however, believe the U.S. might not see a significant new wave because many people have immunity from prior infections and vaccination at this point. [NPR]

As scientists watch BA.2, Illinois is preparing to end its statewide mask mandate a week from today on Feb. 28. And a big question is whether Chicago will follow.

City officials say they’ll make that call when three of the following four metrics hit a “low” threshold: the average daily case count, the positivity rate and the number of hospital beds and intensive care beds that are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

And Chicago appears to have met those requirements. The only metric that remains “substantial” is the average daily case count, which was 348 as of Friday. [COVID Dashboard]

2. Russia recognizes two breakaway regions in Ukraine, setting stage for possible invasion

In a move that could justify an attack on Ukraine, the Kremlin today announced that Russia will recognize the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.

That means Moscow could send troops to those regions. And it also signals that the window for diplomatic talks — and averting a war — could be closing.

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed “in principle” to meet face to face, and the U.S. says those talks will proceed so long as Moscow doesn’t order an attack on Ukraine. [Washington Post]

In a letter to the United Nations, the Biden administration warns that Russia has created a “kill list” of Ukrainians to be attacked or detained if it invades the country. The list reportedly includes journalists, activists, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTQ Ukrainians.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the list illustrates how brutal and violent events could become if Russia invades Ukraine. [NPR]

3. Jury deliberates in the hate crime trial for Ahmaud Arbery’s killers

Jurors are being asked to decide whether the three white men who were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery were motivated by race or because they believed he committed a crime in the neighborhood.

Federal prosecutors point to roughly two dozen racist text messages and social media posts made by the killers: father and son Greg and Travis McMichael, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan.

Lawyers for the three men, meanwhile, argued they acted in self-defense. If found guilty, they face the possibility of steep fines and more time on top of their life sentences. [AP]

4. Lightfoot is slow to fill a key position at City Hall

Mayor Lori Lightfoot still has not named a permanent inspector general, who is City Hall’s top watchdog that investigates corruption. In a city like Chicago, the inspector general is what you’d call an “essential worker.”

As the Chicago Tribune reports, it’s been six months since the previous inspector general, Joe Ferguson, announced he would step down. And the delay in appointing a replacement has some advocates of better government and city leaders concerned.

“This is one of the most important positions in the City right now, especially at a time when there is a troubling level of distrust around police conduct and other critical issues,” Alisa Kaplan, the executive director of Reform for Illinois, told the newspaper. “It shouldn’t go unfilled for one minute more than is necessary.” [Tribune]

5. A 500-pound bear named Hank the Tank has broken into at least 28 homes in California

A black bear known as Hank the Tank has used his enormous size and strength to break into garages, windows and doors in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. as he searches for food, resulting in more than 100 calls to police since the summer.

An average black bear weighs 100 to 300 pounds. And authorities have been unsuccessful at scaring Hank away with paintballs, sirens and even Tasers.

Now, officials hope to trap and possibly euthanize Hank, but residents say the bear appears sweet and gentle, reports The New York Times.

“He just sits there and eats,” said Ann Bryant, the executive director of the Bear League, a wildlife rescue service. “He doesn’t attack them. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t make rude faces.” [NYT]

Here’s what else is happening

  • A massive fire destroyed a brewery, gym and apartments in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. [Chicago Sun-Times]
  • Six people were killed and 18 others were wounded in shootings in Chicago over the weekend. [Sun-Times]
  • Here’s a look at nine moments that resonated at the Winter Olympics. [NPR]
  • John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, reflects on humanity by rating everything from Monopoly to hot dog stands. [WBEZ]

Oh, and one more thing …

The new Batman movie, called simply The Batman, is reviving an old debate: Which city most closely resembles the caped crusader’s hometown of Gotham City?

For folks in Chicago, this is a no-brainer. The Windy City was the setting for arguably the best Batman movie so far — The Dark Knight.

But the Scottish city of Glasgow is putting up a fight, serving as the backdrop for The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson. The film comes out next month.

As The Wall Street Journal reports from Glasgow: “Darren McGarvey, a writer and musician who performs under the name Loki, says ‘Anyone who’s into Batman already understood the parallels between our city and Gotham.’ He points to how Sam Hamm, screenwriter for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, described Gotham in the screenplay as if hell erupted through the sewers and kept going.

“ ‘That’s something many Glaswegians can relate to,’ says Mr. McGarvey, a lifelong Batman fan.” [WSJ]

Tell me something good ...

We’ve been getting spring-like temperatures in the Chicago area lately, and I’d like to know: What are you looking forward to the most during spring?

Me? Not slipping and falling on ice when I take my dog out for a walk. That ice is no joke. But I’m also looking forward to outdoor seating returning to some of my favorite restaurants and bars.

Feel free to email or tweet me, and your responses might be shared here this week.

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