Arizonans dining out at higher rate than most of the country

After being closed for several weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, Chandler Fashion Center Mall welcomes back patrons with many social distancing guideline signs on May 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
After being closed for several weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, Chandler Fashion Center Mall welcomes back patrons with many social distancing guideline signs on May 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Customers aren’t exactly filling the places up.

But new figures from OpenTable suggest that Arizonans are once again warming to the idea of dining out — and doing so with more exuberance than much of the rest of the country.

The most recent data from the organization that help people book reservations finds that dine-in seating at the restaurants surveyed is down about 60 percent from the same time a year ago.

Steve Chucri
Steve Chucri

That’s not great. But it comes after weeks of no in-house dining following the March 20 order from Doug Ducey allowing restaurants to provide only curbside and take-out service. It took until May 11 for the governor to partly lift the order, allowing dine-in services with new service protocols and limits on numbers of diners.

And that 60 percent reduction is better than most of the rest of the country, where dine-in service, on average, is still about 87 percent below last year. Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said it appears that only South Carolina and Alabama, among states that shuttered restaurants, are doing better.

What’s keeping the numbers from being better?

Chucri said some of it is a matter of physics and geography.

He noted the requirement for physical distancing between dining parties. So a restaurant has to get rid of perhaps half their tables to make that a reality.

At the same time, Chucri said, some restaurants are waiting until the next phase to reopen to diners. Here, too, he said, distancing can matter.

For example, he cited one Phoenix restaurant which under normal circumstances would have 30 tables. But the size and configuration, Chucri said, might currently allow for perhaps just eight.

“So the models aren’t there to make the money in order to bring everyone back in,” he said.

That’s not all.

“Others are wanting to make sure all the wrinkles are ironed out in the supply chain issue that we’ve been experiencing,” Chucri said.

And even when restrictions are fully lifted — whenever that occurs — there’s the question of whether people are going to feel comfortable enough to go out and sit down at a fancy restaurant or even a fast-food table.

“I think some of it’s going to be word of mouth,” Chucri said, as those who have gone out spread the word about the experiences they have had.

And then there’s the question of what people read — or don’t read — in the paper. Chucri said a story about someone contracting COVID-19 from going out to eat would get a lot of attention.

“But, so far, so good,” he said.

All this has financial implications.

Chucri figures that the ban on in-house dining has cost restaurants statewide a collective $27 million a day in lost revenues. What that left them, he said, is what some were able to make with take-out and curbside services, a figure he said amounts to just 10 percent of what they were making before.

And Chucri said he presumes that, at least for some time to come, there will be Arizonans who remain more comfortable with getting their meals from their favorite restaurants and taking them home.

Ducey cuts jobless benefits, offers incentives to work


Gov. Doug Ducey is cutting off the $300 a week in extra federal jobless benefits in a bid to help the restaurant and hospitality industry find more people willing to work for what they are paying.

But they will get a one-time $2,000 bonus if they take a full-time job by Sept. 6. And the state is offering some child care assistance and even a semester of community college tuition for those who go back to work.

“In Arizona we’re going to use federal money to encourage people to work … instead of paying people not to work,” the governor said in a video announcement on Thursday.

The move most immediately affects more than 200,000 Arizonans who qualify the extra $300 a week currently appropriated by Congress to help those affected by the Covid.

Ducey’s position, according to press aide C.J. Karamargin, is that there are plenty of jobs out there and little reason for people to be collecting benefits. More to the point, he said that restaurants and hotels are struggling to find workers.

“The hospitality industry in Arizona, a critical part of our economy, was perhaps the hardest hit sector,” Karamargin said.

“They cannot find enough workers for the jobs they have to fill,” he continued. “And this plan is aimed at helping them fill those positions.”

But Karamargin said this extends to other sectors of the economy where employers are having trouble finding workers.

Inherent in that is the governor’s belief that there are those for whom the total benefits — the $240 a week maximum paid by the state plus the extra $300 — provide a disincentive to go out and find a job. That comes out to $13.50 an hour, before taxes are deducted.

By contrast, the state minimum wage is $12.15 an hour; restaurants can pay $3 an hour less if the tips that servers get bring them up to the minimum.

Steve Chucri
Steve Chucri

Steve Churci, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said there are establishments of all sizes that are “ready to hire new employees and expand their teams.” And he said the situation now is far different than it was last year.

“Millions are vaccinated, we know how to keep patrons and staff safe, and people are ready to eat at restaurants again,” Chucri said. “Restaurants need to ensure they have enough staff to meet the demand but many are struggling to fill positions.”

That, however, still leaves the question of whether the problem is the underlying wages — and whether it would be resolved simply by paying more.

In the restaurant industry, for example, data from the governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity shows that the average salary for fast food and counter workers in Arizona ranges from $12.15 an hour to $13.42. And restaurant cooks earn from $12.44 to $15.38 an hour.

“That’s a fair question,” Chucri told Capitol Media Services. But he said those pre-pandemic numbers no longer reflect what the industry is offering.

“We’re paying far above what we would typically pay,” Churci said.

“We’re seeking dishwashers making $25 an hour,” he said. “McDonald’s is paying $50 just to show up for an interview.”

And yet, he said, restaurants are still having trouble finding workers.

Chucri conceded that some part of the problem the industry is having has nothing to do with people deciding they’d rather collect unemployment benefits.

“You’ve got people that have cared for or are caring for Covid patients, family members, that have to be there,” he said. And there are other reasons.

“Some in the restaurant workforce said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be this vulnerable in the future if another Covid were to strike or Covid came back strongly, I don’t want to be in the same situation,’ ” Chucri said. “So they’ve gone into health care, they’ve gone into a different profession.”

So in those circumstances, the governor’s decision to cut jobless benefits won’t make a difference.

But Chucri said there are situations where Ducey’s maneuver will matter.

“I know for a fact that some people who are on unemployment would rather sit home and not come back to work because they’re making at or maybe a little below — and in some cases, above — what they were making,” he said.

Anyway, Chucri said, it’s about more than the restaurant industry, saying retailers also are having trouble finding help.

The big carrot in all this is that $2,000 bonus for those who are currently collecting benefits who go back to work by Labor Day. For those who take part-time jobs, the bonus is $1,000.

But they have to work at least eight of the following 10 weeks to qualify.

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

There also is the promise of a single semester of tuition at the community college along with cash to help those without a high school diploma prepare for their GED exam.

And the state will provide subsidized child care for those who return to work if they are earning $25 an hour or less.

Arizona lawmakers are considering legislation, backed by the business community, to increase that maximum state benefit. That $240 a week is not only the second lowest in the nation — only Mississippi pays less — but has not been raised in 17 years.

But that legislation has stalled amid differences between House and Senate versions, one moving the cap to $320 a week and the other at $300. That leaves the question of whether either version can be enacted before that additional $300 expires on July 10.

And that assumes the governor goes along. Ducey has been chilly to even raising the basic state benefit even though it is not paid through state taxes.

Instead, the payments are financed through a tax that employers pay on the first $7,000 of each worker’s salary. The average cost, according to DES, is $160 a year per employee.

The governor’s announcement also comes as the state’s official seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 6.7%. While that is down from the peak of 14.2% it hit a year ago, it still is higher than the pre-pandemic figure of 4.7%.

This is actually the second move by the governor in less than two weeks to force people back into the workforce.

Earlier this month the governor rescinded an order he had signed in March 2020 suspending the job-search requirements normally part of the ability of people to collect benefits. That was based on not wanting to force people who were infected with Covid, or were caring for others with the virus, to go out looking even as the pandemic was raging.

Now, effective the week of May 23, anyone wanting to keep unemployment benefits will again have to make contact with potential employers at least four days a week.

And after four weeks, they have to take any job that’s offered, regardless of whether it is in their field or not.

Ducey is hardly the first Republican governor to make the move. At least nine others have already done the same.

But President Joe Biden earlier this week rejected the idea that the enhanced federal benefits are why some people are not going back to work.

“The line has been because of the generous unemployment benefits, that’s a major factor in labor shortages,” the president said at the White House on Monday.

“Americans want to work,” he said. “I think the people claiming Americans won’t work even if they find a good and fair opportunity underestimate the American people.”


Former Nogales mayor announces bid for governor

Republicans GOP Democrats politics parties

Former Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez launched his bid for governor with a request to “join us” — and a highly partisan jab at Republicans.

Lopez, 42, currently the president of Internmestic Partners, becomes the first entry into what is expected to be a crowded race. Incumbent Doug Ducey has to leave office at the end of 2022 due to term limits.

He told Capitol Media Services that his experience, in local, state and national government and, more recently, as a business owner, makes him uniquely suited to become the state’s next chief executive.

“The last nine years I’ve spent creating jobs in the private sector,” Lopez said. He said average Arizonans are worried about the next 10 years.

“And politicians, unfortunately, focus on four years and the next election cycle,” Lopez said.

But he is much more specific in his attacks on the people who are now running the state.

In polished videos in English and Spanish shows Gov. Doug Ducey sitting down with President Trump at a photo op at the White House where the president touted the amount of federal cash going to the state for Covid relief.

Marco Lopez
Marco Lopez

“Let’s face it: State leaders failed us even as the coronavirus cost us lives and hammered our economy,” Lopez said.

And he was even less charitable about his feelings about the Republican-controlled legislature.

“Our legislature is run by extremists, promoting bizarre conspiracy theories instead of actually getting things done for you,” Lopez said in his video.

The slap, he said, was intentional.

“You know there’s people who still refuse to acknowledge the election results were fair and balanced,” Lopez said.

“Arizonans have moved on and are now worried how to get their kids to school and what jobs they’re going to have available after this pandemic eases up,” he continued. “They’re not worried about what’s happening there at the Capitol with all these conspiracy theories.”

Lopez said he has long roots in Santa Cruz County where his parents had lived for years.

But he actually was born across the border in Nogales, Sonora.

“On the day that I was ready to be born, my mom went from our homes in Nogales, Ariz., crossed into Nogales, Son., gave birth to me in a private clinic there that was the same place that my older sister was born in,” Lopez explained. “And the next day I was back home.”

But being born in Mexico — and with his parents having only status as permanent legal residents — he had to get naturalized in 1996.

At age 22, Lopez was elected mayor of Nogales where he grew up.

He left that job after then-Gov. Janet Napolitano appointed him in 2003 to head the Arizona-Mexico Commission, later going on to be director of the Arizona Department of Commerce.

When Napolitano resigned to become director of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration she took Lopez along where he became chief of staff of Customs and Border Protection.

But his political experience goes back even farther, to when he was part of the advance team when Al Gore was running for president in 2000.

Lopez, now 42, founded Intermestic Partners in 2011. He said it works with “companies that are looking to invest and grow in the U.S.”

He also is an advisor to Carlos Slim and the foundation that operates in the name of the Mexican billionaire which is involved in providing broadband access to homes. He said that the foundation is on target for connecting 890,000 households throughout the country, including about 11,000 in Arizona.

One issue for all candidates, including Lopez, is going to be funding. It took Ducey as an incumbent more than $12 million to get re-elected in 2018, including $8 million funneled into the campaign by the Republican Governors Association.

Lopez declined to detail his budget but said he intends to seek donations rather than try to self-fund his campaign. But he also acknowledged he does not have high name ID in Arizona, saying he hopes to boost that by talking with voters throughout the state

No one else has formally announced for the post that Ducey has to vacate at the end of 2022 due to term limits.

Other possible Democrat contenders include Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Greg Stanton, a former Phoenix mayor now serving in Congress.

Potential Republican contenders including Attorney General Mark Brnovich, Treasurer Kimberly Yee, developer Karrin Taylor Robson, Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Chucri, and Kirk Adams, a former chief of staff for Ducey.

But the situation is more complicated for Republicans.

First, they also need to field someone to run that year against newly elected Sen. Mark Kelly. The Democrat is completing the last two years of the term that originally belonged to John McCain and will have to seek his own six-year term at that point.

Second, the party has to decide whether to endorse a traditional business-friendly Republican like Ducey or find someone more aligned with Trump who has promised to take an active role in endorsing candidates in Republican primaries in 2022.



Inflation drives minimum wage raise


Workers at the bottom of the Arizona wage scale appear to be in line for a pay hike of $26 a week.

And you can credit — or blame — inflation.

New figures reported Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that prices as measured by the Consumer Price Index for urban consumers, have risen 5.3% between August 2020 and last month.

What makes that important is that laws approved by voters in 2006 and again in 2016 require annual inflation adjustments based on the August figures.

The official calculations won’t come until later this week when the Arizona Industrial Commission, which is in charge of such things, makes the pronouncement.

But tacking that 5.3% figure onto the current $12.15 an hour minimum translates out to 64.4 cents. Rounded to the nearest nickel, as the law requires, puts it at 65 cents and pushes the minimum up to $12.80.

By contrast, the federal minimum wage, which can be adjusted only with congressional action, has been stagnant at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

How many workers might be affected is unclear.

The most recent data compiled by the state Office of Economic Opportunity, from last year, shows a series of occupations where at least 10% of workers earn less than $12.15. That was at a time when the minimum wage was just $12.

The biggest category is in food preparation and service. And those workers make up about 8.5% of the state economy.

But Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association which opposed both voter initiatives, said the latest scheduled increase won’t have as big an effect as might be anticipated, at least not immediately. The issue, he said, is supply and demand.

It starts with what Chucri said has been a bounce in customers.

“I think this is probably going to be the busiest June on record for Arizona restaurants,” he said. “A lot of people stayed here.”

At the same time, however, there are more eating places looking for help than people willing to do the job.

“We had a lot of people leave our industry,” he said, some going back to school and others pursuing a different line of work.

What that did is drive up wages, to the point where Chucri said some restaurants were paying $24 an hour to hire someone to wash dishes.

But he said this 65-cent-an-hour wage boost — and others that will follow annually — will make a difference.

“Now there’s a new floor,” he said, which will set the minimum that eating establishments can pay even when there are more people looking for work.

Other industries also are likely to be affected.

Another group with starting wages that are less than the new minimum are those in what are called health care support occupations, everything from pharmacy aides to physical therapy aides.

Then there are all the folks who now are earning more than $12.15 but less than the new minimum. They, too, are in line for a raise.

And, on top of that, you add in the people who currently are being paid $12.80 who may argue that they are entitled to be paid more than the minimum.

Arizona voters mandated in 2006 that the state have its own minimum wage not tied to the federal figure. That set the bottom of the pay scale here at $6.75 an hour, $1.60 higher than what federal law mandated at the time.

Plus there were inflation adjustments.

A decade later, voters decided to turbocharge the raises, imposing a $10 minimum with automatic increases up to $12 as of 2020.

Last year, with inflation at just 1.3%, that gave workers at the bottom an extra 15 cents an hour.

What’s driving this year’s inflation figure is the cost of fuel.

BLS reports that gasoline prices are up 41.9% over a year earlier.

There also has been a 21.1% increase in the cost of piped gas, versus a 5.2% hike in electricity.

Grocery prices, while rising, are up just 3.0% year over year. But the cost of eating out has risen by 4.7%.

The other big hike has been the price of used cars and trucks, up 31.9%.

At least part of that might be attributed to the fact that there are fewer new vehicles available, with supply chain issues holding up computer components and other parts that manufacturers need. New car prices are up 7.6% year over year.

Shelter prices, including rent and what the BLS calls the owners’ equivalent rent of residences, are up 2.8% nationally.

Of note, that figure is significantly less than for the Phoenix metro area, for which the agency does a separate computation. There, shelter costs are up 6.4% in the past year, a reflection of the tight housing market in Arizona and rising rents and home prices.

The latest state minimum wage hike comes as voters in Tucson are set to decide in November whether to impose their own $15-an-hour minimum wage by 2025.

That would start with setting the floor at $13 on April 1, going to $13.50 in 2023 and $14.25 in 2024 before hitting the target. After that, as with the state minimum, adjustments would be made based on inflation.

Supervisor Chucri resigns after secret recording released


Steve Chucri, who represents the eastern portion of Maricopa County on the Board of Supervisors, resigned Sept. 21, 2021, after a recording emerged of him criticizing his GOP colleagues for opposing a review of the 2020 election. (Photo from Steve Chucri’s election website)

A Republican official in Arizona resigned Tuesday from the board overseeing Maricopa County after a recording emerged of him criticizing his GOP colleagues for opposing a review of the 2020 election.  

During the meeting recorded surreptitiously in March, Supervisor Steve Chucri suggested two fellow Republican county supervisors opposed the review by Senate Republicans because they nearly lost their own 2020 races.  

Chucri apologized in a statement announcing his resignation and said he shouldn’t have made the comments, adding “the political landscape has changed for the worst this year.”  

“The environment is wrought with toxicity — and all civility and decorum no longer seem to have a place,” Chucri said. “The fixation with the 2020 election results and aftermath have gotten out of control.” 

Maricopa County has become Ground Zero in the effort by supporters of former President Donald Trump to use accusations of fraud to cast doubt on the 2020 election results. Chucri’s resignation comes as Trump supporters hired by the state Senate Republicans prepare to release their findings from an unprecedented partisan review of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, the machines that counted them and a variety of other data obtained through a legislative subpoena.  

Chucri said his comments about his colleagues are being wrongly used to paint a picture “about a cover-up, scam and other nonsense,” and he vouched for the accuracy of the results.  

“There was no cover-up, the election was not stolen,” Churci said. “Biden won.” 

He said he’s disagreed with his colleagues, but he’s known them to be “good, honorable and ethical men.”  

Chucri’s resignation is effective Nov. 5. He is in his third term representing the eastern portion of Maricopa County, the nation’s fourth largest and home to the Phoenix metropolitan area. While in office, Chucri has remained the head of the Arizona Restaurant Association, an influential lobbying group. 

The secret recordings were published Tuesday on the conservative website Gateway Pundit, which said they were recorded during a meeting on March 22 with leaders from a group called We the People AZ Alliance as well as a Jan. 22 phone call.  

All five members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, including Chucri, have been highly critical of the Senate’s election review, led by consultants with no experience in election work and who have promoted theories that the 2020 election was marred by fraud.  

But in the March meeting, Chucri said Supervisors Jack Sellers and Bill Gates were scared by the idea of an election review because their own races were close.  

“What would happen in those two races?” Chucri said. “And that is way too self-serving.” 

He said Supervisor Clint Hickman “just didn’t have the guts” for an election audit. Hickman, Sellers and Gates are all Republicans. 


Supervisors pick new board member

Maricopa County Supervisor Thomas Galvin speaks as fellow supervisors Jack Sellers, left, and Clint Hickman flank him at a ceremony to welcome him to the board. PHOTO BY WAYNE SCHUTSKY/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Wednesday to appoint attorney Tom Galvin to fill the District 2 seat left vacant when Steve Chucri resigned in November.  

Twenty-two candidates applied to fill the vacancy and the board chose Galvin from a list of seven finalists it interviewed for the job. Board Chair Jack Sellers, who represents District 1, said there were several candidates he would have felt comfortable appointing, but that Galvin stood out due to his in-depth knowledge of District 2 issues.  

“He was able to talk a lot about what a county supervisor does and should be doing,” Sellers said. “He really impressed me that he was he was ready to start the job on day one.”  

Sellers said in September that he wanted to fill the seat quickly with someone who could be effective immediately. Galvin, a land use attorney and former policy advisor to former Corporation Commissioner Brenda Burns, said his background in the public sector will serve him well.  

“I’m kind of like a fish out of water that seems to be going right back in,” he said. 

Galvin, who was sworn in at a ceremony Wednesday afternoon, thanked the board for appointing him but reiterated a sentiment he expressed last month while considering the position that alluded to the board’s position at the center of the controversy spurred on by the Arizona Senate’s audit of the county’s 2020 general election.  

“Public service has never seemed less appealing and more important,” he said. 

That controversy played a direct role in Chucri’s departure after recordings surfaced earlier this year of him bashing his fellow supervisors earlier this year in conversations with members of the pro-audit group We the People AZ Alliance. 

Chucri abruptly announced he would step down in September shortly after the recordings became public.  

While the board publicly posed a united front in defense of the integrity of the county’s elections, Chucri sympathized with audit supporters’ concerns in the recordings. He said Sellers and Supervisor Bill Gates feared an audit because they had narrowly won re-election in close races and Supervisor Clint Hickman “just didn’t have the guts” to call for an audit. 

He has since apologized to his colleages and acknowledged that Biden won the 2020 presidential election.  

“There was no cover-up, the election was not stolen,” Churci said. 

At Galvin’s swearing in ceremony, Sellers said the goal of the board is “to be one county” – an aspiration challenged by the divisiveness surrounding the last election and the Chucri recordings.  

The supervisors appear to have found a likeminded colleague in Galvin. 

Galvin said he unequivocally denounced unproven theories of election fraud. 

“Joe Biden won a free and fair election in Maricopa County … I know the facts, and I trust the men that are standing behind me,” he said.  

Republican Maricopa County Assessor Eddie Cook, who attended the swearing in with County Recorder Steven Richer, said he told the supervisors that it was imperative to find a candidate who “believes in their philosophy that we’re all part of one team.”  

“I think Mr. Galvin does that very, very well,” he said.  

Supervisor Steve Gallardo, the board’s lone Democrat, drove home the need for unity during the board’s vote to appoint Galvin this morning.  

“Like many issues we deal with, we don’t agree on everything and that’s fine, that’s part of the democratic process, but we tend to try to work out our differences and (we’re) trying to find a supervisor that is going to be part of that team,” he said.  

Though he said he believed in the integrity of the county’s election, Galvin acknowledged that some of his new constituents do not.  

But he said he believes that the Republicans pushing the “Big Lie” only account for a small fraction of the party.  

“So I understand that maybe some people won’t be satisfied and won’t be happy, but simply they don’t have the facts on their side, and I always err on the side of the facts,” Galvin said.  

Beyond ongoing audit concerns – the county is still paying former Congressman John Shadegg to oversee a review of its Splunk logs and routers as part of an agreement with the Senate – Galvin said there is a litany of issues he wants to tackle, including economic development, housing, transportation and water.  

He said he did not think lingering audit issues would get in the way of those other goals.  

“I believe that Board of Supervisors for years, for decades has always been able to chew gum and walk at the same time,” Galvin said. 

Galvin will serve until voters select a permanent replacement at a special election next year to serve through the end of Chucri’s term, which ends in 2024. Galvin said he plans to file to run in that election.  

Camryn Sanchez contributed to this report.