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Pinal supervisors prepare to sue feds for funds from Ducey

FLORENCE — The Pinal County Board of Supervisors met Friday morning and ordered litigation seeking federal funds from the governor that are needed to combat the COVID-19 global health emergency.

At the end of a non-stop three-hour meeting, Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer suggested the county should sue the federal treasury to get funds that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is denying to the smaller counties of the state.

Following an executive session, the supervisors voted unanimously to sue the federal government and force the governor to give Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money equally.

Ducey has sole discretion to disburse funds, though, Volkmer said the county has constitutional rights to sue the federal treasury on the basis of an “equal protection requirement.” If the county won the suit, that could force the governor to disburse money in a more equal manner and not just to heavily populated areas.

So far, Ducey has allocated the CARES funds only to communities of 500,000 or more in population. This computes to funds only going to Maricopa County, Pima County, Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa.

About $2.8 billion was allotted to Arizona in the CARES program.

Volkmer said the act was intended to help communities, businesses and governments including those with populations under 500,000 to fill the gaps left by a “one size fits all federal program.”

Volkmer said the CARES act specifically was meant to assist communities under 500,000 in population.

The county attorney said if Pinal County were to receive an equal share of funds, it would be in excess of $78 million based on $170 per person and a population of 472,789. Using the same rates, the rest of the counties in the state would receive more than $218 million and Ducey would still have more than $1.5 billion to distribute from the CARES coffer.

If Ducey does not distribute the funds by a certain time, the federal government will also recall the money.

Volkmer said this lot of federal funding is really needed because it can be used to help people pay rent, utilities and even Wi-Fi so children can connect to schools and teachers. The funds can also help businesses pay their bills and keep their employees working.

It can be used for food delivery systems to assist food banks.

Volkmer said the Governor’s Office has even refused to take a phone call about the CARES money with a Pinal County leadership team.

“We have to show the half-million population threshold is arbitrary and it does not relate to a legitimate governmental interest,” Volkmer said.

When asked when a potential lawsuit against the federal government might come to a resolution, Volkmer said, “If we were done by the end of this calendar year, I’d be surprised.”

Volkmer said filing a lawsuit would give the county some pressure for the governor to negotiate with Pinal County.

“Every Arizonan counts, and they have a right to be treated fairly. The governor is making the choice to exclude 25 percent of the population. If he’s going to be a bully, you have to stand up and punch a bully in the face,” Volkmer told the supervisors.

Pinal not alone in wanting a fair share of COVID-19 relief funds

PHOENIX (AP) — Besides Pinal County, other Arizona cities and counties are pressuring Gov. Doug Ducey to send them a portion of more than $1.9 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds he’s sitting on as they deal with plummeting tax collections and rising costs from the coronavirus outbreak.

The lawsuit will be filed directly against the federal government and not Ducey. Meanwhile Volkmer said talks could continue with the governor to release the funds.

Pinal County Emergency Manager Charles Kmet opened the special public meeting Friday by telling supervisors that since March 9 the county has already expended more than $7.9 million to combat the virus emergency.

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb also told the supervisors of the trials and tribulations experienced by the COVID-19 virus at the meeting.

Members of the Pinal County community testified before the supervisors during their special session including city mayors, managers and administrators along with business owners and food bank organizers.

People spoke about their struggles and losses suffered because of the health emergency. Business owners told supervisors they struggle to survive and hope they can outlast the emergency, including a San Tan Valley business owner, a gym owner, a Gold Canyon restaurateur, community organizations and the director of a chamber of commerce.

The supervisors listened to the speakers at the special meeting and offered them support in their efforts in obtaining the CARES funds from the state.

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Arizona tribal casinos reopen as stay-at-home order expires

MARICOPA — Several Arizona casinos partially reopened Friday with new sanitizing protocols and social distancing measures about two months after they closed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel and Casino in Maricopa and Fort McDowell Casino near Fountain Hills reopened partially Friday morning as Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order expires. Three casinos the Gila River Indian Community were set to resume partial operations at midday.

The Ak-Chin Tribal Council earlier approved the reopening of its casino, with slot machine banks arranged to allow for social distancing and limited seating at blackjack tables. Poker, keno and bingo games were not resuming yet.

“We look forward to welcoming back our casino guests,” Robert Livingston, the casino’s general manager, said in a statement.

Several hundred people lined up outside the Ak-Chin casino. The customers, mostly middle aged and elderly, including a few on motorized scooters, appeared to be respecting social distance with large spaces between each other. Few were wearing masks.

Along with social distancing and sanitizing measures, the casino that belongs to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation will conduct temperature checks using handheld scanners and thermal cameras. Anyone with a reading over 100 degrees will be denied entry.

On its website, Gila River Hotels & Casinos is encouraging visitors to “RECLAIM YOUR FUN” at the Lone Butte and Wild Horse Pass casinos near Chandler and the Vee Quiva in Laveen.

The Gila River site said casinos would have new non-smoking sections on slot machine floors that observe social distancing and hard plastic shields had been installed in key areas including the cashier cage and some dining venues. Hand sanitizing stations were being prepared at entrances and social distancing will be encouraged throughout.

Visitors will be asked whether they have any symptoms like a fever or dry cough and will be encouraged to wear masks. Fewer people will be allowed in the gaming areas at the same time.

Maricopa businesses reopen 5/15/20

Bucky’s & Yavapai Casinos in Prescott Valley announced this week they will reopen June 1.

Mazatzal Hotel & Casino in Payson has extended its shutdown, but did not specify a reopening date. The website for the Desert Diamond Casinos in Glendale, Tucson and Sahuarita does not say when they will reopen.

Talking Stick Resort and Casino and Casino Arizona near Scottsdale previously announced they would remain closed through May. They said the owner and operator was fully compensating staff during the closure.

Cliff Castle Casino in Camp Verde and Twin Arrows Casino Resort in Flagstaff say they will remain closed for now.

Arizona’s Department of Gaming has said each casino’s decision to close is being decided by the individual sovereign tribal nations.

Casinos remain closed in Las Vegas and the rest of Nevada, where the economy is heavily dependent on gambling and tourism in general. Nevada gambling officials last week approved rules to limit customers, keep gamblers spaced apart from each other and disinfect dice and cards when the state’s casinos do reopen.

But Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has said gambling venues will not be among businesses restarting activities during the first phase of Nevada’s reopening.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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Lucid installing robotic machinery in CG plant

CASA GRANDE — Lucid Motors has started installing the equipment for the assembly line for its electric luxury sedan at its new manufacturing plant in Casa Grande.

“Our team of automotive experts and industry partners have started installing the main line in the “Body in White” shop along with the large dip tanks required for the painting process,” said Mike Boike, the director of manufacturing and head of Arizona operations.

According to Lucid’s website, the installation involved the first of nine shipments from Japan of manufacturing equipment and robots that will be used in the plant to build the Lucid Air sedan. More equipment is being shipped and due to arrive on schedule to get the plant on Casa Grande’s southwest side up and running before the end of the year.

“Despite the many hurdles due to COVID-19, we remain on schedule to start up our equipment according to schedule,” Boike said.

The main structure of the company’s manufacturing plant is complete and the siding is being attached, he said. Inside the building, the environmental controls, plumbing and electrical work are being installed and are on schedule for the company to start manufacturing “preproduction units” by the fall, Boike said.

Lucid is hoping to start producing the first finished “customer units” of the Air at the start of next year, he said.

Lucid is also working with Central Arizona College, the Arizona Commerce Authority, Pinal County and the city of Casa Grande on the Arizona Advanced Technology Network’s plans to build a new 13,000-square-foot training facility at CAC’s Signal Peak Campus for all advanced technical manufacturing employers in the area.

The plant is expected to create 2,000 new jobs and $6.2 million in new taxes for the city. The company plans to manufacture about 130,000 vehicles a year when the plant is finished.

Ducey allows theaters to reopen Saturday but Harkins not ready

PHOENIX — You can legally go catch a flick at your local theater.

Gov. Doug Ducey says it’s now OK.

But don’t pack the kids in the car just yet or fill your purse with candy from the dollar store.

Theater operators contacted by Capitol Media Services say they’re not ready to open the doors just yet, if for no other reasons than there simply isn’t anything new to throw up on the screen. But they are willing to sell you popcorn, and even bring it out to the curb for you.

On Thursday, the Department of Health Services released its guidelines for how the theaters should operate, covering everything from seating to butter dispensers for popcorn.

Only thing is, these are being phrased as suggestions and recommendations. And that leaves a lot up to individual operators — and, ultimately, to customers to see if they feel safe.

But gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said much of what is in this list, as well as similar ones for other kinds of business, have come from the industries themselves. He said the governor and his advisers “expect these recommendations will be followed.’’

As to other recreational opportunities, don’t hold your breath waiting to see the first pitch of the season.

Yes, Ducey has said that games can go on, albeit without fans. So you’ll be watching on the small screen.

Here, too, however, Major League Baseball isn’t ready yet, either. The latest news show team owners looking for a start in early July — assuming some arrangement can be reached with players.

And where they will play has yet to be determined.

On one hand, Ducey said he has been in discussions with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, though he declined to disclose what he said.

But the governor did say the state “is very open-minded to hosing whatever Major League Baseball would like.’’ And he made a pitch of sorts.

“We have the facilities that are here,’’ Ducey noted, especially with all of the Cactus League fields. “We have the hotel space that is here.’’

Ducey, however, is going to get competition from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who is doing his own outreach, especially after California Gov. Gavin Newsom have balked at the idea of large gatherings where the virus could spread.

“If you have a team in an area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for you in the state of Florida,’’ he said.

Florida also has the advantage of Grapefruit League fields, though they are more far-flung than those in Arizona which all are concentrated in the Phoenix area.

But then there’s the question of playing outdoors in the summer heat, as only Chase Field has a roof.

More immediate recreational relief for Arizonans — and air-conditioned at that — is likely to come at one of the state’s movie houses. But not just yet.

“Although we are not planning to reopen our theaters now, we are anxious for the day we can safely and responsibly welcome guests back into our theaters to watch movies on the big screen, where they are meant to be seen,’’ reads a statement from Harkins Theatres.

The company says it is working with public health officials and industry partners to finalize a reopening plan and safety protocols.

But, for the moment, all that is academic.

“Another necessary criteria is a reliable and continuous slate of great new theatrical films,’’ the company said, saying it is waiting for the planned release of anticipated summer blockbusters like “Wonder Woman 1984’’ and “Mulan.’’

Potentially the first up could be “Tenet,’’ the latest film from “Inception’’ director Christopher Nolan scheduled for release on July 17.

Still, the company said it will probably open its doors “a couple of weeks’’ ahead of new Hollywood offerings, whether with previously released or specialty films.

AMC, the other big player in Arizona, did not immediately return calls seeking a schedule. The company is not listing any showtimes for the immediate future.

Arizonans anxious to sit in the dark may have some options soon.

Gary Clement, general manager of the Willcox Historic Theater told Capitol Media Services he is ready to turn on the projector on next Friday.

What will he be showing?

“I have no idea until Monday,’’ he said, saying he was on the phone negotiating some releases. He said the theater, first operated in 1937 and reopened in 2012, shows first- and second-run movies along with independent releases and even some stage shows.

Still, like his bigger counterparts, Clement’s operation recognizes that it’s not just what’s on the screen that attracts patrons: Popcorn and snacks are available curbside Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. and on weekends from noon until 6.

That still leaves the health department’s protocols which are mere recommendations.

For example, it says that operators should “consider spacing out seating for those who are not in the same party to at least six feet apart.’’ And even that has some wiggle room, saying that should occur “when possible.’’

It also suggests that theaters “consider limiting seating to alternate rows.’’

That’s apparently by design.

“We want to provide as much flexibility as possible,’’ Ducey told business owners Thursday during a conference call.

Other suggestions include:

  • operating with reduced capacity with special attention to limiting areas where customers and employees and congregate
  • wiping pens, counters and hard surfaces between uses or customers
  • arrange concession areas and break rooms to provide for appropriate physical distancing
  • providing employees with masks and have them wear them “when possible”

Oh, and for those who like butter — or whatever that is — on their popcorn or those flavored salts, the protocols suggest scrapping those common-use dispensers and having single-use servings.