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'We have missed you so dang much!' Austin bar Donn's Depot reopens with limited capacity

Pat Byrne, left, and Rich Brotherton perform Monday, March 29, at Donn's Depot. The popular local bar opened over the weekend after being closed for more than a year.

"We have missed you so dang much!"

That's what the staff of Donn's Depot posted to Facebook last week upon announcing that the funky, old-school railroad depot-turned-bar and music venue was finally returning from a yearlong closure during the coronavirus pandemic.

Owner Donn Adelman, who has played on Friday nights for eons, did the honors for the first night back. Longtime Wednesday residency fixture Frank Cavitt followed on Saturday. Monday found Irish transplant Pat Byrne joined by ace guitarist Rich Brotherton.

Pat Byrne and Rich Brotherton at Donn's Depot on Monday, March 29.

Converted from an old railroad stop, the former McNeil Depot became Adelman's domain in 1978 and has since developed a character and clientele not like any other hangout in town. It's especially popular during the holidays, when the bar is traditionally decked out with a smorgasbord of yuletide lights and decorations.

RELATED:Donn's Depot is decked out for the holidays

Donn's endured the same plight as nearly all live music venues during the pandemic, struggling to stay afloat through a combination of donations and government assistance. There were times, bartender Michelle Beebe Nabours said Tuesday, when the bar's survival was very much in question. "It was pretty dire," she said. "It was like, 'Oh, we have a month left."

Early on, a crowdsourcing campaign provided more than $70,000 during a crucial phase when local and federal funds had not yet been made available to venues. Later, small-business loans and grants helped bridge the gap. Throughout, Nabours said, employees went without paychecks; she says she lived on unemployment benefits for the bulk of the year.

RELATED:Struggling to stay afloat, Donn’s Depot launches subscription fund

Bartender Michelle Beebe Nabours serves drinks at the recently reopened Donn's Depot on Monday, March 29.

Donn's opened briefly last summer when state restrictions on bars were lifted, then had to close again eight days later when the limitations were reinstated as COVID-19 numbers spiked. The decision to reopen this month came after much deliberation and was sparked by the city and county moving its guidelines for COVID-19 risk down to Stage 3. That level had gone up to the maximum Stage 5 in December.

"We’re still doing reduced capacity because it’s more responsible," Nabours said, noting that the increased number of vaccinated citizens also helped sway the decision. The regular crowd at Donn's skews older, a demographic that has had higher rates of vaccination. (Nabours added that all staffers at Donn's have received the vaccine.)

A sign posted to the front door lays out the ground rules: 1) Masks are required upon entry and when walking through the club, but they can be removed when sitting at a table; 2) a temperature-check and hand-sanitizer (provided) is required upon entry; 3) Donn's is operating at 50 percent of its usual capacity of about 200.

Kris Elkinton checks the temperature of Salvador Jimenez at the front door of Donn's Depot on Monday, March 29.

Nabours added that they're also consulting with the musical performers about whether they are OK with how far tables are set from the stage. Photos from Monday night indicate the seating arrangements are similar to the bar's pre-pandemic setup.

Not all of the musicians who hold weekly residencies at Donn's have opted to return just yet. Byrne and Brotherton played Monday because pianist Chris Gage, who's handled Monday nights for more than two decades, is choosing for now to continue his Monday evening "Not at Donn's Depot" livestreams from home with his wife, singer-songwriter Christine Albert.

Both Gage and Albert contracted the virus last year, even though they "heeded the COVID-19 guidelines all along," Gage wrote on Facebook Monday afternoon to explain why he was sticking with livestreams for the time being. The bar aired Gage's stream in its back room before Byrne and Brotherton began their set.

"Believe me, I want to come back, and when it’s safer for everyone I’ll move my stream to Sunday and begin a new earlier tradition at Donn’s on Mondays," Gage added.

Pianist Chris Gage, who's played Mondays at Donn's Depot for more than two decades, has chosen to continue livestreaming at home on Mondays with his wife, singer-songwriter Christine Albert, rather than return to playing the venue just yet.

Meanwhile, back at the bar, Byrne and Brotherton welcomed an array of special guests during their show, from pianist Chip Dolan to South Austin Moonlighters member Phil Hurley to singer-songwriters Kathy McCarty, Kate Howard and Hayden Lindsey.

Nabours said the bar is still working on the schedule of performers. Though the long-term residency holders all will likely return eventually — the bar's website calendar still shows the regular rotation as it stood before the pandemic — Nabours said one intriguing upside is that Donn's will be able to feature artists who may not previously have had a chance to have their own night there.

PHOTO GALLERY:Donn's Depot in 2019

They're also taking a cue from Gage's livestreams, which still routinely draw hundreds of viewers online a year later. "We’re going to get some cameras installed," she says, with plans in the works for livestreaming from the venue much as other clubs such as Austin's One-2-One Bar and Houston's Mucky Duck have been doing during the pandemic.

On the outside looking in at Donn's Depot, 1600 W. Fifth St., which reopened over the weekend after being closed for more than a year during the coronavirus pandemic.

With Donn's open again, "people who want to go out and see live music will definitely do that," Nabours said. "But there’s still a huge number of people who aren’t comfortable with that yet."

Donn's will be open from 2 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday, remaining closed on Sundays as it had been before the pandemic.