Essential were those who make the economy run and those within the exalted government and government-favored institutions. Nonessential was the rest of us. From Jeffrey A. Tucker at brownstone.org:
In all my thinking about the lockdown years, I’ve only had time now to think carefully about this strange distinction between essential and nonessential. What did it mean in practice and where did it come from?
The edict to divide the workforce came from a previously unknown agency called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency or CISA. The edict came down March 18, 2020, two days following the initial lockdown orders from Washington.
Management and workers all over the country had to dig through regulations that came out of the blue to find out if they could go to work. The terms essential and nonessential were not used in the way one might initially intuit. It sharply demarcated the whole of the commercial world in ways that are inorganic to all of human experience.
In the background was a very long history and cultural habit of using terms to identify professions and their interaction with difficult subjects like class. During the Middle Ages, we had lords, serfs, merchants, monks, and thieves. As capitalism dawned, these strict demarcations melted away and people got access to money despite accidents of birth.