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A 4-year-old boy sits on his mother’s lap after getting his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the Blue Door Neighborhood Center in Morgan Park.

A 4-year-old boy sits on his mother’s lap after getting his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the Blue Door Neighborhood Center in Morgan Park.

Mariah Rush

The Rundown: New year, new COVID variant

Hey there! I can’t stop laughing about how someone decided to cut a giant Illinois-shaped hole out of the stage for Gov. JB Pritzker’s inauguration. Here’s what you need to know today.

1. What you need to know about the new COVID-19 variant — XBB.1.5

This new, more transmissible variant is quickly becoming the dominant strain in parts of the U.S., so far accounting for almost a third of new infections, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The current increase in cases that we are seeing really began around the Thanksgiving holiday when people gathered. And as we went into the bigger holiday season — the Hanukkah/Christmas holiday season — that has accelerated infections further,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told NPR.

The good news is there is no evidence this variant makes people sicker than previous strains. And the immunity built up from previous infections and vaccinations should prevent serious illness.

“So no one thinks this winter will be anything like the first two horrific pandemic winters,” NPR reports. [NPR]

2. Illinois Democrats are divided over how far to go in banning assault weapons

Democrats who hold the majority in the Illinois Senate have introduced their own assault weapons ban that competes with a similar proposal approved by the House on Friday.

Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch have criticized the Senate plan, with Welch calling it a “a watered-down version of legislation that falls unacceptably short of the comprehensive solutions that the people of this state deserve.”

Among the biggest differences between the two proposals is what to do with high-powered firearms that are currently owned legally by Illinois residents, reports my colleague Tina Sfondeles at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Under the House’s plan, owners would be required to file the serial numbers of their weapons with the Illinois State Police within 300 days of the law taking effect. The Senate’s version ditches this requirement. [Chicago Sun-Times]

3. Peoples Gas seeks a record $402 million rate hike for next year

The natural gas company recently proposed its biggest rate hike ever, which would translate to an extra $11.83 on average for Chicago residents, reports Mitchell Armentrout at the Chicago Sun-Times.

The news comes as homeowners have seen their heating bills soar this winter due to the rising costs of natural gas around the world. And other Illinois providers, such as North Shore Gas and Nicor, are also seeking rate increases.

But Peoples Gas says it’s “not expected to increase the typical customer’s bill” because natural gas prices are expected to stabilize and drop through 2024.

The rate hike now goes to the Illinois Commerce Commission, which has the rest of the year to decide on the request. [Chicago Sun-Times]

4. A new plan aimed at keeping the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field

A prolific stadium builder unveiled over the weekend a detailed plan for overhauling Soldier Field in the hopes of enticing the Chicago Bears to stay in the city, reports David Roeder at the Chicago Sun-Times.

The proposal includes adding a dome on the historic stadium and transforming it into a year-round commercial and entertainment hub, Roeder reports.

The plan comes from Bob Dunn, the president of Landmark Development and an adviser to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

Dunn said his proposal would save the Bears at least $1 billion over the cost of building a new stadium in Arlington Heights, where the team has a contract to purchase land. [Chicago Sun-Times]

5. Thinking of biking this winter? Here are some tips from pros.

I’ll be honest, when I see a brave bicyclist pedaling around Chicago during the winter, it’s hard for me to not wonder, “What are they thinking?”

“Once you ride in five-degree weather, 20 degrees is nothing,” said Randy Fleer, a 59-year-old Edgewater resident.

WBEZ contributor (and year-round bicyclist) Lou Foglia talked to people who don’t stop saddling up when the weather gets colder.

“Couriers, commuters and enthusiasts shared their limits, their strategies for the road and the vital gear that helps get them where they want to go,” Foglia reports. [WBEZ]

Here’s what else is happening

  • At least 1,200 people have been detained in Brazil after supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed government offices. [AP]
  • There’s a good chance Ukraine could retake all occupied land this year, according to Western officials and analysts. [Washington Post]
  • The Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago endorsed Paul Vallas for mayor. [Chicago Tribune]
  • Chicago’s beloved Wiener’s Circle coordinated an effort to feed migrants bused to the city. [Chicago Sun-Times]

Oh, and one more thing …

I desperately need something new to watch, especially after Netflix canceled 1899. At least there’s still Doom Patrol for folks who like “weird” stuff.

But NPR TV critic Eric Deggans created a list of TV shows and other media projects he’s looking forward to this year.

Among them is HBO’s highly anticipated The Last of Us, an adaptation of a widely popular video game that, as Deggans writes, is a bit of “a mash-up of The Walking Dead and The Road.”

And there’s Shrinking on Apple TV+ starring Harrison Ford as “a crusty therapist mentoring a younger analyst going through a personal crisis.” [NPR]

Tell me something good ...

With Chicago’s elections coming up, I’d like to know: If you were running for any office, what would be your campaign song?

I’ve got two. One is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away with Me,” partly because that strange sound in the intro still makes me laugh. What’s up with that?

And then there’s “Groove is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite. How can anyone listen to that song and not immediately feel better?

Feel free to email me, and your response might be shared in the newsletter this week.

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