Coronavirus, Stimulus, Winter Solstice: Your Weekend Briefing

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Here are the week’s top stories, and a look ahead.

1. A season typically defined by joy is increasingly defined by grief.

The pandemic continued its deadly ascent in America this week, shattering once-unthinkable numbers: a single-day caseload of more than 251,000 new coronavirus infections, 1 million new ones in just five days and more than 3,600 deaths in a single day. The national death toll soared past 300,000 this week. Above, a drive-through testing site in Houston.

Holiday gatherings — and how much they can spread the virus — could be crucial in determining whether coronavirus cases surge even higher over the next month. Just look at Thanksgiving.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.K. imposed a strict lockdown on London and most of England’s southeast, banning Christmas-season gatherings beyond individual households. The decision came after the government got new evidence of a fast-spreading variant of the virus, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson asserted was as much as 70 percent more transmissible than previous versions.

Total infections around the world have now topped 76 million.

2. More than 128,000 people in the U.S. received a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine this week as the country began the largest vaccination campaign in history. Monica Escopete, a registered nurse in Apple Valley, Calif., above, got her first of two shots.

3. Senators reached an agreement on a final Republican sticking point in stimulus talks, a major step toward passing a $900 billion aid package.

Working against a Sunday-night deadline to avoid a government shutdown, Republicans agreed to narrow an effort to curb the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending powers.

Lawmakers have been racing to complete an emergency plan to rush $600 direct payments, unemployment benefits and food and rental assistance to millions of Americans, as well as relief to businesses and funds for vaccine distribution.

Millions of Americans are out of work and at risk of losing their homes — and they are running out of time and patience.

President Trump was largely absent amid the vaccine breakthroughs and economic relief talks in the last week, one of the most consequential of his tenure. Mr. Trump’s behavior — acting as a bystander while other leaders answered a crisis and simultaneously raging at Republicans who have inched away from him — may be a preview of his post-presidency.

4. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia was “pretty clearly” behind the largest cybersecurity breach Washington has ever seen.

The comment, made almost as an aside to a conservative radio show host, was the first time the Trump administration went on the record to blame the Kremlin for the recent hacking that infiltrated dozens of government and private systems.

But because President Trump has 30 days left in office, national security officials say the U.S. response will likely fall to President-elect Joe Biden. That became even more clear when Mr. Trump insisted on Twitter that “everything is well under control” and suggested that it might have been China rather than Russia that carried out the hack.

And given the intensity of the attack, it may be months before Mr. Biden can trust the systems that run much of Washington.

5. We took a close look at how President-elect Joe Biden’s emerging administration will shape U.S. policy for the next few years.

His nominees are designed to be an extension of his own centrist ideology but with a greater focus on the plight of working-class Americans, a new sense of urgency about climate change and a deeper empathy about the issues of racial justice that he has said persuaded him to run for the presidency a third time.

And who will be chosen to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s Senate seat? The question is a battle between Black and Latino representation in California.

6. An internal Times review found that “Caliphate,” an award-winning podcast that sought to shed light on the Islamic State terrorist group, did not meet the standards for Times journalism.

The review found that “Caliphate” gave too much credence to the false or exaggerated accounts of one of its main subjects, Shehroze Chaudhry, a resident of Canada who said he had assumed the name Abu Huzayfah as a member of the Islamic State. The Times started its review after Canadian authorities arrested Mr. Chaudhry in September and charged him with perpetrating a terrorist hoax.

The podcast had two main problems, said Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor: the newspaper’s failure to assign an editor well versed in terrorism to keep a close watch on the series; and the “Caliphate” team’s lack of skepticism and rigor in its reporting on Mr. Chaudhry.

7. Tomorrow is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest, darkest night of a long, dark year.

This winter’s darkness is as literal as it is metaphorical, with the catastrophic toll of Covid-19, and fear and dread for what is to come. But as our faith and politics reporter writes, it also serves as a reminder that for millenniums, “humans have turned to rituals and stories to remind one another of hope and deeper truths.”

There is some solace for the darkness: On Monday night, Jupiter and Saturn will almost kiss in the night sky, appearing as one bright planet. The last time they came this visibly close to each other was in the year 1226. Go out and look southwest in the hour after sunset.

For those looking for greater meaning, “this is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” said the astrologer Chani Nicholas.

8. This grackle is not wearing a sports fan’s beer helmet. It’s a custom-built tool for the study of blinking in birds.

A sensory ecologist had been wondering how animals balance their need to blink with their need to get visual information. So she worked with a company that builds eye-tracking equipment to make a custom bird-size headpiece and found that the grackles she studied spent less time blinking during the riskiest parts of a flight.

And in October, researchers reported that the already perplexing platypus glows a psychedelic blue-green color under black light. Since then, others have begun their own investigations, mostly in Australian mammals. Now we may be dealing with glowing Tasmanian devils, echidnas and wombats.

9. Time to pop the bubbly.

“It’s been a dismal year,” our wine critic Eric Asimov writes, “but let’s look at the bright side: It’s nearly over.” That means bubbles can still feel right to mark the occasion, so Eric picked 10 sparkling wines — from Champagne and elsewhere — well worth drinking at multiple price points.

Simply emblazoning “Champagne” on a label is no guarantee of quality. But if you’re committed to the region, Eric created this guide to finding the best Champagne for you, including 10 excellent big houses, 10 small grower-producers — and a glossary (so you can sound like you know what you’re talking about).

10. And finally, an assortment of great reads.

Scenes of a pandemic Christmas, like the one above in New York City. How Russia wins the climate crisis. A $200,000 sushi dinner. These stories and more top the latest edition of The Weekender.

Our editors also suggest these 11 new books, “Total Control” on Sundance Now as well as other TV picks and the latest Modern Love about accepting sincerity after years of disappointment.

Have you been keeping up with the headlines? Test your knowledge with our news quiz. And here’s the front page of our Sunday paper, the Sunday Review from Opinion and our crossword puzzles.

Have a festive week.

Your Weekend Briefing is published Sundays at 6:30 a.m. Eastern.

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