The Federal Communications Commission, on its own motion, has issued a Declaratory Ruling to address how the Telephone Communication Protection Act’s “emergency purposes” exception applies to calls relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The TCPA includes an “emergency purposes” exception to its general prohibition on making automated or prerecorded calls to a cellular telephone number without the called party’s prior express consent.  FCC rules define “emergency purposes” to mean “calls made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.”  The FCC has stated that the exception is intended for “instances [that] pose significant risks to public health and safety, and [where] the use of prerecorded message calls could speed the dissemination of information regarding…potentially hazardous conditions to the public.”

In the ruling, the FCC confirms that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an “emergency” under the TCPA and states that whether a call relating to the pandemic qualifies for the “emergency purposes” exception will depend on the caller’s identity and the call’s content.  With regard to the caller, the caller “must be from a hospital, or be a health care provider, state or local health official, or other government official as well as a person under the express direction of such an organization and acting on its behalf.”  With regard to the call’s content, the content “must be solely informational, made necessary because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and directly related to the imminent health or safety risk arising out of the COVID-19 outbreak.” 

The ruling makes clear that the “emergency purposes” exception does not include “calls that contain advertising or telemarketing of services” or “calls made to collect debt, even if such debt arises from related health care treatment.”  In the FCC’s view, collection calls do not qualify for the exception because they “are not time-sensitive, do not ‘affect the health and safety of consumers,’ and are not directly related to an imminent health or safety risk.”