Virus Variant, Stephen Sondheim, Leftovers: Your Friday Evening Briefing

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Good evening. Here’s the latest at the end of Friday.

1. The U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries to contain the new variant of the coronavirus.

The W.H.O. said the new variant reported in South Africa was “of concern” and gave it the name Omicron. At least 10 other countries have halted or restricted flights.

There is no proof yet that the variant is more contagious or lethal, or could diminish the protective power of Covid-19 vaccines, but uncertainty on those questions was one factor in the speed with which countries moved toward restrictions. In response, stocks tumbled.

So far, only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

In other virus news, Merck said that in a final analysis of a clinical trial, its antiviral pill is less effective than previously thought, reducing the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk Covid patients by 30 percent, down from 50 percent.

2. Stephen Sondheim, the driving force behind some of Broadway’s most beloved and celebrated shows, died. He was 91.

An intellectually rigorous artist who perpetually sought new creative paths, Sondheim was the theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century, if not its most popular.

His work melded words and music in a way that enhanced them both. From his earliest successes in the late 1950s, when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” through the 1990s, when he wrote the music and lyrics for “Assassins” and “Passion,” he was a relentlessly innovative theatrical force.

“I have always conscientiously tried not to do the same thing twice,” Sondheim said, in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 2000. “Being a maverick isn’t just about being different. It’s about having your vision of the way a show might be.”

3. During this holiday shopping season, expect more people in stores, but prepare for shortages.

Black Friday kicked off the holiday shopping period, with retailers in the U.S. entering a buying season that has much more in-person shopping than in 2020, but is not as carefree as it was prepandemic. One of the main challenges for retailers will be ensuring that they have items in stock.

Nordstrom said this week that it was facing a shortage of inventory at its off-price Nordstrom Rack chain. Gap said that it lost sales in the third quarter as products were limited by factory closings in Vietnam.

Still, it’s a rebuilding year for retail. We have photos of Black Friday from around the U.S. and Europe.

4. France responded angrily to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suggestion that it take back migrants who reach Britain.

The French disinvited Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, from a crucial meeting on the migrant crisis on Sunday. The diplomatic dispute erupted just days after 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel.

In a letter to President Emmanuel Macron of France, Johnson wrote that France and Britain should “put in place a bilateral readmissions agreement to allow all illegal migrants who cross the Channel to be returned.”

5. An Interior Department report on drilling on public lands was mostly silent about climate change.

In the long-awaited report, the department recommended that the federal government raise the fees that oil and gas companies pay to drill on public lands — the first increase in those rates since 1920 — but it said little about the climate effects.

That silence angered some environmentalists, who want the government to consider the climate impact of drilling when it weighs approval of new leases. That would be a first step toward ending new oil and gas drilling on public lands, something President Biden had promised when he ran for office.

6. The Bradford pear tree is an unwieldy menace. South Carolina is stepping up its fight against it.

The trees, which have been popular since the 1960s, have an appealing shape with mahogany-red leaves, are easily available and thrive in almost any soil. But now, they have taken over open fields, farmland, river banks and ditches, edging out native species and upending ecosystems.

Officials in South Carolina added the Bradford pear to its State Plant Pest List this year, and a ban on the tree will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2024. Ohio has taken similar measures.

For greenery you want to keep, as winter approaches, there’s at least one place where plants will still grow: a terrarium. Our gardening expert explains how to get started on your tiny garden.

7. Our Sydney bureau chief, Damien Cave, hated swimming. In Australia, that changed.

Two years ago, he harrumphed his way into becoming a volunteer lifesaver at one of country’s most dangerous beaches. These days, he surfs or swims in the Pacific four or five times a week.

“In up-and-down seas, I can be imperfect, playful, apolitical and happy as long as I’m moving,” he writes.

In his dispatch from India, our South Asia bureau chief, Mujib Mashal, writes about two storied cafes in Kolkata where customers come just to talk for hours about everything and nothing. There is a word in Bengali for that unrestricted conversation: “Adda.”

8. Five children are winning acclaim for their roles in prestige dramas this season. They shared what it was like.

The five actors, ages 10 to 15, talked us through their starring turns in “Belfast,” “King Richard,” “C’mon C’mon” and “The Tender Bar.”

Judi Dench is very, very funny, and sometimes very inappropriate,” Jude Hill, who plays Buddy in “Belfast” said. “To have her play my grandma is insane.”

We also spoke to Rob McElhenney, a creator and star of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which is about to become the longest-running live-action sitcom in U.S. history.

Hanukkah starts on Sunday evening. We’ve got loads and loads of recipes for that — along with further advice about allowing some of your dishes to “cure.”

10. And finally, a soccer secret.

Every year for the past six, Pascal Ferré, the editor in chief of the French soccer weekly France Football fields the same question: Who is the winner of the Ballon d’Or award?

Ahead of the announcement, which this year will be held on Monday, Ferré is one of only two people who know in advance who will win soccer’s biggest prize for individual players. The other person is his trusted executive assistant, who is told only in case some misfortune befalls Ferré.

“Imagine if I had an accident,” he said. “There would still have to be a Ballon d’Or.”

Have a suspenseful evening.

Sarah Hughes compiled photos for this briefing.

About Wanda Dufresne

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