On March 20, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) on its own motion released a Declaratory Ruling to confirm that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an “emergency” under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”); as a consequence, hospitals, health care providers, state and local health officials, and other government officials may lawfully communicate through automated or prerecorded calls (which include text messages) information about the coronavirus and mitigation measures to mobile telephone numbers and certain other numbers (such as those of first responders) without “prior express consent.”

By way of background, absent “prior express consent,” the TCPA prohibits the transmission of an automated or prerecorded call to any mobile telephone number.  However, this prohibition is subject to an “emergency purposes” exception.  The TCPA does not define what constitute “emergency purposes,” but the FCC’s rules construe the term to mean “calls made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.”

To ensure a common understanding of the extent to which calls that pertain to COVID-19 can qualify for the “emergency purposes” exception, the FCC yesterday issued its Declaratory Ruling.  In doing so, the FCC made clear that to qualify for the exception in these circumstances, (1) the call must be from a hospital, a health care provider, a state or local health official, or other government official, or a person acting under the express direction of such an organization and acting on its behalf; and (2) the content of the call must be solely informational, made necessary because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and be directly related to the imminent health or safety risk arising out of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The FCC cited the following as examples of the types of calls that would qualify for the exception in this context:

  • a call originating from a hospital that provides vital and time-sensitive health and safety information that citizens welcome, expect, and rely upon to make decisions to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease;
  • an informational call designed to inform and update the public regarding measures to address the current pandemic made on behalf of, and at the express direction of, a health care provider;
  • a call made by a county official to inform citizens of shelter-in-place requirements, quarantines, medically administered testing information, or school closures necessitated by the national emergency.

By contrast, according to the FCC, calls advertising a commercial grocery delivery service; or selling or promoting health insurance, cleaning services, or home test kits; or calls made to collect debt, even if such debt arises from related health care treatment, would not qualify for the exception.

The FCC made clear that it will be vigilant in monitoring complaints about calls that violate the TCPA and will not hesitate to take enforcement action when appropriate.