10 things you need to know today: January 5, 2021

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1.

President-elect Joe Biden and President Trump held opposing rallies in Georgia on Monday ahead of two Tuesday Senate runoffs that will determine control of the Senate. Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue hold the seats now, but polls and early voting trends indicate their Democratic challengers, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, could unseat them. Democrats have to win both races to take control of the Senate from the GOP. Trump, who is pressuring Georgia officials to overturn his election loss in the state, devoted part of his remarks to repeating his vow to hold on to power. Biden criticized the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic, and encouraged people to vote. "It's not hyperbole, you can change America," he said. [Reuters, The New York Times]

2.

U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations surged to the latest in a string of record highs on Monday, increasing by about 2,800 to more than 128,000 patients nationwide. The biggest increase came in California, which had more than 22,000 people under treatment for COVID-19, more than any other state. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said California is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to upgrade oxygen delivery systems at older hospitals to keep up with the surge. By population, Arizona, Nevada, and Alabama had the most COVID-19 patients. As the surge continued, health officials braced for the pandemic to get worse before it gets better, due to the possibility of infections from holiday gatherings. More than 1.3 million people passed through airport security checkpoints on Sunday, the most in a single day since the coronavirus crisis hit the U.S. [The Washington Post]

3.

Washington, D.C., police arrested the leader of the far-right Proud Boys group on suspicion of burning a Black Lives Matter banner torn from a historic Black church during a December protest that resulted in violent clashes. Enrique Tarrio, the chair of the Proud Boys, was charged with destruction of property. Police added weapons charges after he was found to be carrying two high-capacity ammunition magazines. The Proud Boys and other groups are expected to participate in protests on Tuesday and Wednesday in support of President Trump's false claims that he won the November election. About 340 Army National Guard troops are expected to be deployed to help D.C. police keep order. Congress is scheduled to certify President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory on Wednesday. [The New York Times]

4.

Iran on Monday started enriching uranium to levels prohibited under its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. It also seized a South Korean-flagged tanker near the vital Strait of Hormuz. The dual challenges to the West were widely interpreted as a sign Tehran was trying to increase its bargaining power in the final days of the Trump administration, and put immediate pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to ease tensions with the Islamic Republic. Iran has escalated uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, the highest level since the establishment of the nuclear deal, which President Trump abandoned. It marked an incremental step toward weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif implicitly acknowledged that the move was a bargaining chip, saying the measures were "fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL" with the nuclear deal. [The Associated Press]

5.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday that his government was imposing a strict new lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus, which has surged since Britain first detected a highly infectious new strain of the virus. With infections rising sharply, Johnson ordered schools and colleges in England to close and pivot entirely to remote learning. He urged people to stay home except for necessary trips such as buying food and medicine, or going to an essential job. The United Kingdom had imposed near-lockdowns in some areas in December, but Johnson acknowledged on Sunday that it wasn't enough. Before Johnson announced his government's new restrictions in England, Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed a full-scale lockdown. [The New York Times]

6.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Monday that his state had detected its first case of the new, highly infectious coronavirus variant first found in the United Kingdom. New York is the fourth state to confirm a case of the new strain, after Colorado, California, and Florida. Cuomo said the patient was in Saratoga County, and had no known history of travel. Even though the U.S. only has a few cases of the variant so far, it spreads so fast that public health officials expected it to soon be rampant. "It will likely become our dominant strain within a few months," Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, wrote in a Sunday Washington Post op-ed. Existing vaccines are believed to be effective against the new strain. [The Hill]

7.

Qatar has reached a breakthrough in negotiations to end its three-year dispute with Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries, Reuters reported Monday, citing a senior Trump administration official. The two sides are expected to sign an agreement in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. The settlement of the dispute followed other diplomatic deals sought by the Trump administration, with Israel establishing diplomatic openings with a series of Arab states under a push to establish a united front against Iran. Under the latest agreement, Saudi Arabia is expected to reopen its airspace, and land and sea borders to Qatar, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Sabah said on Kuwait TV ahead of a Tuesday summit. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt had imposed an embargo on Qatar since mid-2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism. [Reuters]

8.

U.S. stocks indexes plunged on Monday, the first trading day of 2021, as investors remained focused on the coronavirus pandemic in the new year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down by as much as 725 points during the day before regaining some ground and closing down by 507 points, or 1.7 percent. The S&P 500 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite fell by 1.8 percent. The Dow and the S&P 500 had just set records as 2020 ended after an extended late-year rally fueled partly by optimism about the rollout of the first coronavirus vaccines. Many analysts believe economic activity will pick up later this year as more of the population is vaccinated. But the escalating current wave of infections has many convinced the situation will get considerably worse before it gets better. U.S. stock index futures edged higher early Tuesday. [The Wall Street Journal, CNBC]

9.

President Trump gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) on Monday, and is expected to give it to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) next week, Axios and The Washington Post reported Monday. Trump is busy rewarding friends and allies with pardons and other decorations in his final weeks in office, and Nunes and Jordan are two of Trump's closest allies in Congress. Jordan was a vocal and passionate defender of Trump during his impeachment hearings, and Nunes was one of the president's biggest allies in his effort to undermine the Justice Department's investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, though Trump has bestowed it on some controversial recipients. [Axios, The Washington Post]

10.

More than 200 workers at Google's parent company Alphabet have launched the Alphabet Workers Union, which The New York Times reports was "organized in secret for the better part of a year." In a Times op-ed published Monday, the union's executive chair Parul Koul and vice chair Chewy Shaw, two Google software engineers, wrote they "believe our company's structure needs to change" and that "company leaders have put profits ahead of our concerns." "Alphabet continues to crack down on those who dare to speak out, and keep workers from speaking on sensitive and publicly important topics, like antitrust and monopoly power," they wrote. Unions are rare in the tech industry. Google's director of people operations Kara Silverstein said the company will "continue engaging directly with all our employees." [The New York Times]

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